May 07, 2021

Democracy’s Digital Defenses

By Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick

In early 2021, the audio-only social media app Clubhouse allowed users in mainland China to enter chat rooms and talk freely to the world—including American journalists and people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, areas usually off-limits to Chinese citizens. For a brief period, users of the app had an uncensored glimpse of the internet beyond the Great Firewall.

But Beijing moved quickly to crush the tiny, iPhone-based revolt, and Clubhouse chat rooms were banned on Feb. 8. A Stanford research team later found that a Shanghai-based startup called Agora had access to Clubhouse users’ audio files and metadata, potentially giving the Chinese Communist Party direct access to their conversations.

Democracies are discovering they can fight fire with fire, using their own digital tools to defend freedom and undermine autocracy.

Technologies aimed at surveilling populations, suppressing dissent and spreading propaganda have long been used by authoritarian governments. But in recent years, democracies are discovering they can fight fire with fire, using their own digital tools to defend freedom and undermine autocracy. New tools, many of them developed by the commercial sector as privacy safeguards, are increasingly being repurposed as democracy’s digital defenses.

During demonstrations in 2019, protesters in Hong Kong relied on the Reddit-like website LIHKG to communicate with fellow dissidents. They used the crowdsourced web-mapping service to avoid police and the dating app Tinder to recruit new pro-democracy activists. Dissidents have even used the augmented reality game Pokémon Go to provide cover for unauthorized gatherings. Russian opposition members have developed a “protest navigator” on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, as well as bots that identify police locations during marches.

Read the full article from The Wall Street Journal.

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