From the Internet for freedom to the Internet of self-censorship?
By: Iroel Sánchez
July 14, 2022
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
If physical geography, the availability of domesticatable plants and animals, and belonging to the temperate climate band in which these were able to expand on both sides of the Fertile Crescent (Diamond, 2020) determined the superiority of European societies in colonizing much of the world, contemporary geopolitics is becoming determined by agents interacting outside of physical space and operating intangibly.
The classic capitalist contradiction between the character of work (increasingly social, i.e., increasingly needing to be performed by a greater number of people and/or organized groups) and that of capital (increasingly concentrated) is manifested in times of the Internet as a handful of U.S. companies known as GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft), Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) or GAFAT (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Twitter), which increasingly concentrate the metadata resulting from the increasingly intense and encompassing activity that human beings carry out through Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).
The commercialization of such metadata (Wilson, 2019) enables a level of efficiency in advertising – be it for travel, consumer goods or political projects – that has only multiplied the effectiveness with which those who already previously concentrated the lion’s share of resources of all kinds. They benefit from the increasingly unfair distribution of wealth and their control over communication processes.
Social networks are not new: from a sociological point of view, they have always existed among humans (Wasserman; Faust, 1994). Each person already belonged to overlapping networks of family, friends, community, work, student or union networks, long before TikTok, Linkedin or Instagram burst into our lives. But the growing use of these platforms has made these previously invisible relationship systems tangible and capitalizable. Every search, every exchange, every text, video or photo post, and those who interact with them, as well as the accompanying metadata (date, time, gender, topic and geographic location of the participants, among others), are employed to find, connect and intentionally use affinities and phobias at a speed previously unthinkable. That process is possible thanks to technological developments such as Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (Bello-Orgaz; Jung; Camacho, 2016).
In February 2021, large technology companies accounted for 13 out of every 100 dollars valued on the Wall Street Stock Exchange (Carbajal, 2021), surpassing the marketing of armaments. Speaking of armaments, one might wonder if the investment for psychological warfare, understood –according to the US Army Manual– as the action of “influencing foreign populations by subjectively expressing information to influence attitudes and behavior, and to obtain compliance, non-interference or other desired behavioral changes” (Headquarters, 2005), is not part of those economic values, in a scenario of new hybrid wars led by the US political-military apparatus and intelligence community.
Hybrid warfare is a term whose use has been increasing among several theorists (Bartolomé, 2019; Gavrov, 2017; Piella, 2019) to refer to the combination of economic aggression, irregular warfare, financing of internal opposition, psychological warfare, terrorism, regular warfare, economic blockade and sabotage, and cyberwarfare. In Latin America, the two countries in which the United States has employed this mix of methods to change the regime are Cuba and Venezuela (Sanchez, 2020). Its culminating point has come during the Trump administration, and it involved, in the Cuban case, the approval of 243 economic restriction measures (MINREX, 2021), with the millionaire financing to internet media and opposition groups, which in November 2020 articulated an attempted soft coup with the support of the US embassy in Havana (Robinson, 2021); this had its aggravated version last July 11. This time it was a concerted operation in the digital public space.
In a scenario of an increase in the main indicators of the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic, as a result of the entry and circulation of more aggressive variants in some areas of the country, a coordinated campaign was developed from abroad, replicating mechanisms and protagonists already used during the coup d’état in Bolivia and in interventions against Venezuela, among others. According to Spanish analyst Julián Macías Tovar, the operation was structured in three phases: the first one made use of the SOS Cuba label, “requesting help through false and automated accounts that massively mentioned artists from all over the world”.
The second phase installed in the media the call for a “humanitarian corridor” and invoked the support of artists. The third phase consisted of demonstrations that were accompanied by maximum diffusion in networks and the use of tags that became a global trend. “The method is repeated, the synergic strategy in networks, media and mobilizations” (Macías Tovar, 2021); the intensive use of robots, algorithms and accounts created for the occasion or with automated patterns, fake news and manipulated images, in addition to the invisibilization of different demonstrations in support of the government and the Cuban Revolution.
The analysis of some of the key profiles in this network operation shows a relationship with the Atlas Network organization, linked, on the one hand, to conservative think tanks and supporters of the free market in Latin America and, on the other hand, to the U.S. government itself through the National Endowment for Democracy (Indymedia Argentina, 2021).
How the Internet has changed
If in the past the computer was for many only synonymous with IBM, and automobile with General Motors, today, for most earthlings, the internet is synonymous with Facebook and Google, and operating system means Android or Windows.
The involution of the Internet – from an ideal element for free expression, knowledge, communication and equity, to a space for political polarization and hatred – has generated multiple alarms. Barack Obama himself has expressed his concern in this regard. The former president of the United States has been one of the main promoters of the Internet, which he considered during the most important speech during his visit to Havana, without any nuance, “one of the strongest engines of growth in the history of mankind” (Obama, 2016). However, during a more recent interview with British Prince Harry, he drew attention to how social networks can divide societies (Yeginsu, 2017).
“Today, for most earthlings, the internet is synonymous with Facebook and Google.”
Alerts were not lacking: on May 18, 2012, a joint statement by a group of civil society organizations ahead of the United Nations meeting in Geneva for “Enhanced Cooperation on Internet-related Public Policy Issues” noted that “what was once a public network of millions of digital spaces is now largely a conglomeration of spaces owned by a few” (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012).
The revelations (Hu, 2015) of former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden about how adversary governments, and also allies, critical infrastructures and citizens of any country can be spied on even in their most intimate relationships by the US intelligence apparatus, with total impunity, were not known at the time.
The Covid-19 pandemic increased the permanence of people on the networks, and therefore, the profitability with which U.S. Internet companies operate. On average, users spend in 2021 about 6 hours and 42 minutes on the internet each day, about the same amount of time spent sleeping; and of the seven most visited sites only one is not hosted on U.S. servers (Social, 2021).
Any company or political party can now micro-localize the recipients of a message, on a network such as Facebook, or in the results of a search engine such as Google, based on age, sex, geographic location and professional profile. This is how a product or a news item is positioned. Cambridge Analytica went a step further (Wilson, 2019) by systematizing into political types the user profiles on Facebook to adapt to each one the message for which advertisers paid them: “Hillary is corrupt,” and perhaps she is, but no less so than this procedure employed to win her the election. The election of Donald Trump owes something to it (Berghel, 2018), as does Brexit (Heawood, 2018) and other processes where money has managed to transform itself into the action of technological tools to intervene in reality and push it in the direction in which the powerful consider.
The logic of a system that turns everything it touches into merchandise has been found in the trade with data derived from the use of the internet a way of expansion towards what has been called “platform capitalism” (Srnicek, 2017).
To blame the internet, and not the economic and political asymmetry of the pre-existing physical world, with the economic, political and military hegemony that has achieved control over it, would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to ignore the fact that it is part and consequence of the dynamics of a system that tends to concentrate financial and material resources in fewer and fewer hands.
In the name of freedom of expression on the Internet, the United States disqualifies Moscow and Beijing, but as Evgueny Morozov points out, one does not have to agree with the way Russia and China regulate freedom of expression to notice a difference, at least in the discourses, of the three powers: Russians and Chinese defend access to data generated by their citizens on their own soil, while the United States pretends to access, and in fact accesses, data generated by anyone anywhere (Morozov, 2015). And when countries that Washington considers democracies (such as Brazil during Dilma Rousseff’s government) tried to establish sovereignty over their citizens’ data and force them to be stored on servers located in their territory, they were immediately dissuaded.
Latin America, digital backyard of the United States?
The main exchange point for Latin American traffic is not in the region, but in Miami: the Network Access Point (NAP) of the Americas. Even in countries blockaded by the United States, such as Cuba and Venezuela (Social, 2021), the use of U.S. social networking platforms predominates, and it is through them that Washington has stimulated and articulated regime change agendas in those countries (Elizalde, 2019).
In particular, any analysis of Internet use and access in Cuba must start from the more than 60 years of aggressions of all kinds by the U.S. government against the island. A report approved by the United Nations General Assembly by 187 votes in favor, 3 against and 2 abstentions (Nations, 2019) documents in 922 630 million dollars the damage caused to the Cuban economy by that policy since its inception, taking into account the depreciation of the dollar against gold. The same report sets at $55 million the damage of U.S. restrictions on Cuban telecommunications in 2018, including the denial of access (censorship) to “top technology sites, making it difficult to self-prepare or train remotely. Such are the cases of Cisco, VMWARE, Google Code, Google Web Designer and Google Page Speed Insights” (Cuba, 2019: 26).
Information from May 2021 from the Union of Computer Scientists of Cuba states that there are more than 50 technological information and e-commerce sites whose access is blocked on the island by the U.S. government, including platforms such as Zoom, and most software repositories (Guevara, 2021).
Since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, Washington allocated significant financial resources to propaganda against Cuba, starting in 1960 with Radio Cuba Libre (Radio Swan) until the creation in 2018 by the Donald Trump administration of the Internet Task Force for Cuba; passing through Radio Martí (1986) and Television Martí (1990) during the Reagan administration. With the advent of the internet those financings, averaging $50 million annually, were transferred to the network. Radio Television Martí alone has received 36.1 million dollars in one year (Cuba Encuentro, 2006). Other projects, always associated with Internet communication, received in the first three years of the Trump administration, through the Agency for International Development, close to 50 million dollars; in turn, the aforementioned National Endowment for Democracy received 23 million dollars for what they call “projects to promote democracy” in Cuba (Project, 2021).
The Cuban government’s policy with Radio and Television Martí, and some other media that directly receive this financing, has been to block access to their contents, while others may even have more aggressive positions, but are not exclusively dedicated to propaganda against Cuba (El Nuevo Herald, El Diario de las Américas, ABC) are accessible from the island. It is therefore a defense of national sovereignty in the face of external aggression and not an act of censorship.
The growing access to social networks in Cuba is illustrated by the fact that in January 2021, 7.7 million Internet users were reported, of which 6.28 million are users of social networks, out of a total population of 11 million inhabitants (Social, 2021). In this context, the platforms have become the main stage of action to disseminate the content produced by Washington-paid media. A report by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) had made known in its 2019 projections that “working with independent Cuban journalists and encouraging citizens to create user-generated content on the Island for OCB (Office of Broadcasting to Cuba, which operates Radio and Television Martí) platforms remains a top priority.”
OCB’s digital strategy has become social networking consistent with metrics that place YouTube, Google and Facebook among the most visited sites in Cuba. With the use of AVRA technology, Radio Martí’s programs evolved to visual radio and were broadcast via Facebook Live along with TV Martí’s programming. This provides OCB with an additional efficient and cost-effective distribution outlet for both its radio (visual radio) and television content. In fiscal 2018, OCB will establish digital teams on the Island to create unbranded local Facebook accounts to disseminate information. Native pages increase the chances of appearing in the news feeds of Cuban Facebook users. The same strategy will be replicated on other preferred social networks (Governors, 2019:31).
As Internet users relate to Internet content through intermediaries (social networks and search engines), the companies that manage these intermediaries become the eyes and ears of those who think they are surfing the net (Pariser, 2011). The fact that the intermediaries used by Latin Americans are all American is not exactly the way to the often mentioned second independence of the region.
Is there an alternative?
The integrationist processes in Latin America have seen their heyday with the realization of a few projects in the ICT area. One of these is the ALBA 1 submarine cable, which allowed Cuba to access the Internet from Venezuela, extending from Camurí, near the port of La Guaira, in the State of Vargas (Venezuela), to Siboney beach, in Santiago de Cuba. While the U.S. blockade made it impossible to connect the country to the dense network of cables close to the Cuban coasts (for example, the one that runs from Cancun to Miami, only 32 km from Havana’s Malecon), it was necessary to lay 1,062 km at a cost of 70 million dollars (Cubadebate, 2010).
The multinational information multiplatform TeleSur is another such project. But at the continental level, extra-regional companies have prevailed over alliances between Latin Americans in search of technological sovereignty and taking advantage of the cultural and linguistic unity that characterizes the region.
The Internet model assumed as “free” search service (Google) or social networks (Facebook) is based on these companies selling audiences to others who pay to reach the selected segment of their billions of users (Pimienta; Leal, 2018); and whoever pays the most will always arrive first, although not necessarily with more truth or with products of higher cultural or educational quality.
The practically infinite availability of content, and the fact that any user from any location can become a supplier of images, sounds, videos or texts, have not meant a diversification of the consumption of cultural products by audiences. On the contrary, a good part of these users, due to the phenomena of induction and social control, which far from diminishing have deepened with the extension of the Internet, are imitators of the cultural models that radiate from the United States to Latin America and that even before the arrival of the Internet dominated the screens of Latin American television sets and movie theaters, as Fabio Nigra points out.
The interaction between loyalty – for having managed to define the viewer’s taste – and economic power is unbeatable: through concentration, large capitals do not compete with each other and manage to penetrate markets by the easy way, offering good quality products at prices that are more than accessible due to their production at scale; Or by the hard way, starting with commercial and economic pressures, intertwining their own needs with the pushing capacity that the US government can exert, through economic support, direct or indirect subsidies, restrictions on the production of other countries, threats of blockades or sanctions, interstate agreements where, with the appearance of mutual convenience, a reduction in costs is achieved for the producer, whose capitals are transnational, but based in the United States, and so on. At the same time, with the establishment of easily understandable narrative formulas, together with the appeal to an aesthetics that, although it was built over the years (classic editing, naturalism in the performances and scenarios, linearity in the evolution of the plot), after much trial and error admitted to delimit what is going to have a result in the viewer and what would not achieve the intended effect; both elements allowed obtaining a high percentage of guaranteed commercial success (with the necessary ups and downs) (2020).
“The interaction between loyalty – for having succeeded in defining the viewer’s taste – and economic power is unbeatable”.
As a regional group, Latin America still produced only 46.5% of its total free-to-air television programming in the 1990s and imported the remaining 53.5%, half of which – 25.5% – came from the United States. In cinema, in the country with the highest production (Argentina) at its best, national production was a substantial minority on the screens compared to U.S. production (15% vs. 77%) (DEISICA, Department of Study and Research of the Argentine Film Industry Union).
The “alternative” to this situation, which emerged with the rise of the Internet, has not been a Latin American chain of audiovisual content in cinema, series, music or shows, but the presence of Netflix in the homes of the region. Less than 30% of internet access in Latin America is to locally sourced sites, and that access is mostly associated with commerce and financial services, not cultural products (Sharma; Arese Lucini, 2016).
“While the digital divide has decreased, the cultural divide has increased.”
World Stats reported that, in May 2020, in Africa only 39.3% of people accessed the internet, compared to 87.2% of Europeans and 94.6% of North Americans; while in Latin America the level of connectivity reached 68.9%. But while the digital divide has decreased, the cultural divide has increased and the influence of sectors historically aligned with U.S. policies towards the region cannot be said to be minor, something visible in the neoliberal ebb that followed the fall of the Zelaya government in Honduras and the subsequent processes with which figures such as Jair Bolsonaro and Juan Orlando Hernández came to power. More internet, under Latin American conditions, has not always been synonymous with more democracy.
Thanks to the internet, diversity can be better disseminated, but homogeneity has been imposed more effectively and in a more accelerated manner. All voices, all languages, can have their space in the network of networks, but the hegemonic loudspeakers of the physical world have multiplied their influence in it.
As we have already mentioned, the intensive use of ICTs and the dissemination of false information in the political campaigns of Jair Bolsonaro, in the post-electoral coup process in Bolivia in 2019 or in the recent events in Cuba, are not an example of service to Latin American democracy (Elizalde; Molina, 2020).
“Universal socialization tools have become the enabler of U.S. global surveillance.”
Since June 2019, people applying for a U.S. visa have to hand over their profiles in social networks, their email addresses and the telephone numbers they have used in the last five years (Garcia, 2019). We know that mass surveillance, understood as the monitoring of people’s behavior, has always been the great temptation of authoritarian powers, however, at present, we are witnessing democracies that have developed sophisticated clandestine surveillance networks putting at stake the very tradition of which they are supposed to be part (Ramonet; Assange, Chomsky and Sacristán, 2016). This is how universal socialization tools have become the facilitator of global surveillance by the United States, which is not going to stop using that information even if, as will happen in most cases, it decides to deny visas to applicants.
A byproduct of that decision is self-censorship: How many people will limit their expression on the Internet because they ever plan to apply for a U.S. visa?
If the hegemonic actors of the cultural industry, whose influence has multiplied with the Internet and social networks, exert a great seduction on the populations of the planet, selling the American dream; the realization of the journey towards that dream needs the self-censorship of those aspiring to put their heads on Uncle Sam’s not always fluffy pillow.
It has not been enough for the United States to gain access to the servers of major internet companies, nor the ability to, using global networks, attack critical infrastructures of its adversaries – as it has done with Venezuela (TeleSur, 2019) or Iran (Chen; Abu-Nimeh, 2011) -; violate the rules of free trade – as it has just done with the Chinese company Huawei (Ciucan, 2020); induce behaviors in social networks to overthrow governments that are hostile to it; in addition to building false leaders; turning the most obvious lies into truths, based on almost infinite repetitions; and viciously persecuting those who use them to disseminate information that is uncomfortable for them – let us remember Assange – or harassing to the point of suicide those who advocate – like Aaron Swartz – for a truly democratic internet at the service of all (KNAPPENBERGER, 2017).
The alliances between US tech companies and the State Department were very convincingly exposed (Assange, 2014). Of its bipartisan character can attest to one of the most important executives of the king of internet search: Jared Cohen, whom Assange calls “Google’s director of regime change”, and who worked with both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton and then went on to lead Google Ideas.
The attempt to lead digital activism in Latin America also began early for the State Department when in November 2010 the Personal Democracy Forum Latin America (PDF) convened “the region’s top digital leaders to discuss, along with other digital leaders from around the world, how technology is breaking into politics. There, the Department’s Director of Innovation, Alec Rossles, assured bloggers and tweeters in the region that the Internet is the “Che Guevara of the 21st century” (Ross, 2010; Ross; Scott, 2011). Imagine, for a moment, Che Guevara handing over to Washington all the metadata of Latin Americans, along with their email addresses, social media profiles and phone numbers.
While the U.S. government has taken care of cyberactivists in Latin America and especially trained and financed them for the changes it wants to see in the region (Falcón, 2020), the lefts that have been or are in government have lacked popular education strategies for digital sovereignty.
There is a lack of teaching programs at all levels of education to train not only critical receivers, but active participants capable of creatively harnessing the potential of the Internet.
Studies point to the absence of relevant local content and the lack of skills in the population as the main constraints to digital inclusion (Sharma; Arese Lucini, 2016). Can there be a break with geopolitical control external to the region without solving these aspects, if regional alliances both at governmental level and social subjects with institutional support for the development of infrastructures and platforms for content production are conspicuous by their absence?
The answer is the same for other challenges: regional integration. Only with it, informatization from below, with ventures that meet the needs of communities in the digital environment, accompanied by an education that enhances and stimulates the cultural and sovereign use of ICTs, would contribute to the social change that the region demands.
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YEGINSU, C.: “When Harry met Barry: The BBC Obama interview”, The New York Times, 2017.
La cronología completa puede verse en Granma, 2018.
Revista Electrónica Internacional de Economía Política de la Información, la Comunicación y la Cultura. Disponible en: https://seer.ufs.br/index.php/eptic/issue/view/1128?fbclid=IwAR1ZLrGj_EDe9omhKO06tchsYOpFW4d73w09ji1m0oVMJkMWeM8Efv3gP8I