Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 21, 2020
Who benefits from the failure to regulate the cyberspace?

During the short period of time I spent in London, I had the opportunity to meet opinion makers, including journalists, intellectuals, artists and bloggers from some Western capitals (Washington, Paris and London), as part of events organised by a specialised institute. One of these meetings coincided with the news that was circulating about the potential dismissal or resignation of US President Donald Trump last year. This was a result of the extensive debate that was taking place in the halls of Congress, in parallel with demonstrations in some States, demanding the President's departure in the very middle of his presidential term. Although the majority of those present were anticipating that Trump would not complete his term, I was of the opinion that he would continue leading America until the end of his mandate, and even that his chances of winning a second presidential term would be very strong. This can be accounted for by at least three considerations which I would summarise as follows:

  • First consideration: Trump is the first American President to have committed himself to implementing nearly all of his electoral programs, especially in the economic and social areas.
  • Second consideration: Trump's use of social media in a novel way.
  • Third consideration: This is related to the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the time, there were talks in inner sanctums about a new US plan to deal with this issue, which started with the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem as a prelude to an integrated project that was later referred to as the "Deal of the Century".

Although the majority of public opinion outside the US was influenced—through the media—by the views of Trump's opponents, and many were predicting an early end for him as President of the United States, what was happening on social media suggested that the man was controlling the use of social media to his advantage.

Perhaps, this use of virtual networks was preceded by a wide debate on the role of social media in the way Trump was elected President in 2016. Indeed, Russia was accused of interference in these elections, by weaponising social media to boost Trump's candidacy against Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, which prompted American institutions, such as Congress and national security bodies, to conduct investigations into the matter.

After winning the presidential elections in 2016, Trump continued relying on social media, especially Twitter, when communicating daily with the American people. He also used the social media platform to send explicit or encrypted messages to his opponents and friends, whether at home or abroad. Trump is, thus, keen to communicate through social networks, even when dealing with the world's leaders. In short, he actually broke the usual rule among heads of States, who rarely use social networks to convey direct personal messages or to publicise achievements.

Traditionally, the tasks of communication are assigned to employees and specialised institutions. Nonetheless, Trump relied, throughout his presidential term, on the rapid, direct and personal use of these online networks, especially Twitter, to the extent that many observers and experts in digital communication were of the opinion that Trump's approach does more harm to him than good.

In my personal view, it is quite the opposite, because Trump's method of communicating with the American people and with the rest of the world gave him greater power, both in the US and abroad. This leads me to suggest that the second presidential term is probably guaranteed to Trump, thanks to his proper, effective and intelligent use of social networks, not to mention the other two considerations referred to above.

All this leads us to a key question that I have previously raised in articles and at events organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi. I stated that during the last decade, politicians have competed with the major commercial brands, and have become one of the most prominent users of social networks for the purpose of controlling decision-making centres. They are followed closely by the various terrorist movements in the world, which excelled in making use of the Internet to carry out their destructive schemes.

This reality challenges the general view that believes that people(s) have benefited from the services of social networks, and from the broad space they provide for the enjoyment of freedom of expression and opinion. However, the rise of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news — or the “infodemic”— prompts us to raise a question about the world's need for a UN-backed international reference geared towards regulating this space, following the example of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in addition to an international legal framework that would govern the rights and duties of social media users.

When observing the users of virtual networks, excluding some social services and the promotion of some human experiences, it is striking to note the absolute predominance of three social groups:

  • The first category refers to terrorist movements, as all of their extremist contacts and plans, and the promotion of their bloodthirsty background references and destructive operations have been widely conducted via the Internet, enabling them to secure a very wide space in the public scene, to such an extent that virtually everyone in the world today has heard of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, for instance.
  • The second category consists of the most prominent brands and the huge specialised companies that have contributed to establishing those networks, and which are the major beneficiaries of such networks, both financially and commercially, as they have accumulated record profits from promoting their goods or services over the internet.
  • The third category comprises the politicians in office or those who seek to exercise power. Some politicians have made use of social networks to clean up their images, which have been tainted with gross violations of human rights. They have also taken advantage of the content disseminated on these networks in order to enact laws that consolidate their absolute power and restrict freedoms.

There is one more group, consisting of activists who advocate for economic, social and cultural rights, but their numbers and extent of influence on social networks remain very limited.

The question that inevitably comes to mind is this: Who is the main beneficiary of the lack of regulation in the digital space? Who benefits from the lack of oversight when social media networks have turned into an effective platform for making radical changes in politics, as well as in the economy, enabling those who have control over it to change heads of States and governments, or again unleash wars and end them?

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