Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2021
Volume 32
Issue 3
Page Numbers 187-91
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Philippine-American journalist Maria Ressa, president of the online news site Rappler, spoke on a panel on the impact of social media on democracy beyond the West. The dialogue was part of the 2021 Copenhagen Democracy Summit, an initiative of the Alliance of Democracies. The summit was held on May 10–11 both online and in Denmark. Excerpts of Ressa’s comments on whether social media can still be viewed as “liberation technology” follow. (To watch the panel discussion, see: 

The global South feels the excesses of technology more [than Western nations]. … Strangely what the social media platforms have shown is that … human beings as a whole have far more in common than we have differences because we’ve reacted the exact same way [to these excesses] regardless of country or state. But the big difference [across] our nations is that [developing countries’] institutions are incredibly weak compared to the checks and balances [that have been] developed in the West.

In 2016 the news organization I helped create, Rappler, and I wrote … that … the first casualty in [the Philippine’s] battle for truth [was] the number of people killed in [President Rodrigo Duterte’s] brutal drug war. … That violence was facilitated [and] fueled by American social media companies. It’s ironic—based on big data analysis we reported, the networks that were manipulating us online [as well as] targeting and attacking the truth tellers and pounding to silence anyone challenging power. … They had actually created an extensive social media propaganda machine. … Five years ago, we demanded an end to impunity on two fronts—Duterte’s drug war and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

Today it’s only gotten worse, and Silicon Valley actually since came home to roost on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill [in Washington, D.C.]. We all know this now… what happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media. Online violence leads to real world violence. [End Page 187] I felt like Sisyphus and Cassandra combined, repeatedly warning that our dystopian present here in the Philippines is actually your future. …

The person that has captured it best… is actually someone who looks at emergent behavior: American biologist E.O. Wilson … said we’re facing paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. Social media with its highly profitable micro targeting has become a behavior modification system… We are Pavlov’s dogs—experimented on in real time—and the consequences are disastrous. Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of news and yet … many, many studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further [online] than boring facts. The social media platforms that deliver the facts to you are actually biased against [them] and they’re biased against journalists. They are by design dividing us and radicalizing us … Society isn’t as polarized as they make it. This is not a free speech issue; it is not the fault of the users. These platforms are not merely mirroring humanity, they’re making all of us our worst selves; creating emergent behavior that feeds on violence, fear, uncertainty; and enabling the rise of fascism. …

Without facts you can’t have truth, without truth you can’t have trust, without trust we have no shared reality, and it becomes impossible to deal with the world’s… existential problems—climate, coronavirus, [and] the atom bomb that exploded in our information ecosystem when journalists… lost our gatekeeping powers to tech companies. But tech abdicated responsibility for the public sphere and can’t even fathom that information has to have integrity. …

There’s this equally dangerous and insidious virus of lies that is in our information ecosystem. It is seated by power wanting to stay in power [and] spread by algorithms that are motivated by profit. It’s a business model Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”—the reward is our attention—and this is all linked to the fight for geopolitical power.

I think the first step that needs to happen is these guardrails have to be put on the American social media platforms that have made all of us so much more vulnerable.


From February 2021, the month that the prodemocracy Hirak (movement) resumed demonstrations, to early June, the number of prisoners of conscience in Algeria has risen from 32 to 215. In 2019, Hirak’s demonstrations had ousted four-term president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On April 29, unfounded terrorism charges were brought against three prominent human-rights defenders as well as twelve other Hirak activists. These charges could result in up to twenty years in prison for each activist. Excerpts follow from a statement issued by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Front Line Defenders. (For a full version of this statement, see:  [End Page 188]

This new terrorism-related charge constitutes a dangerous escalation in attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, and the peaceful protest movement Hirak itself. Front Line Defenders and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemn the increase in intimidation, criminalisation and attacks against human rights defenders and civil society in Algeria.

Said Boudour is a journalist, human rights defender and member of the Algerian League for Human Rights. As well as organising peaceful demonstrations, he works to defend the rights of migrants and political prisoners. Kaddour Chouicha is a human rights defender and university lecturer. He is the vice president of The Algerian League for The Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), and he is the president of the League in Oran, focusing on promoting political and civil rights in Algeria. Jamila Loukil is a journalist and a woman human rights defender. She is also a member of the Algerian League for Human Rights where her work focuses on covering the peaceful Hirak demonstrations in Oran.

… We believe that this [terrorism] charge is solely motivated by [these three human-rights defenders’] participation in the Hirak and is an attempt to purposefully mis-characterize their human rights activities and the Hirak movement as a whole. This prosecution comes as Algerian civil society, ahead of legislative elections in June, is reporting a new and escalated assault on opposition and independent forces, through arbitrary arrests and the use of unnecessary and excessive force. At least 3,000 individuals, including rights defenders and peaceful protesters, have been arbitrarily arrested since 18 February 2021.

On 29 April 2021, the Public Prosecutor of Oran charged human rights defenders Said Boudour, Kaddour Chouicha, and Jamila Loukil with: “conspiracy against state security to incite citizens to take up arms against state authority or to undermine the integrity of the national territory”; “propaganda likely to harm the national interest, of foreign origin or inspiration”; and “enrollment in a terrorist or subversive organization active abroad or in Algeria.”…

Police officers detained Said Boudour on 23 April 2021 while he was participating in a peaceful Hirak demonstration in Oran. The human rights defender was reportedly physically assaulted by the officers, leaving marks on his body and face. Said Boudour was detained in a local police station in Oran and on 28 April 2021, was allowed to meet with his lawyer for the first time since his arrest. Following the hearing on 29 April 2021, the investigative judge placed Said Boudour under judicial control. …

As they were leaving the court on 28 April, Kaddour Chouicha and Jamila Loukil were detained by police officers and brought to a police station in Oran, where they were interrogated by police about their human rights work and their alleged involvement with Islamic groups, which the human rights defenders have categorically denied. … [End Page 189]

Twelve other activists and peaceful protesters, arrested between 23–27 April, are similarly arbitrarily prosecuted within the same case: Yasser Rouibah, Tahar Boutache, and Mustapha Guira are in preventive detention; Karim Ilyes is under judicial control; Noureddine Bendella, Imad Eddine Bellalem, Djahed Zakaria, Ibrahim Yahiaoui, and Mohamed Khelifi are under provisional release. Seddik Sayeh, Aissam Sayeh, and Abdelkader Sekkal have not attended the hearing. …

Front Line Defenders and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies have previously expressed concern in response to the targeting and harassment of human rights defenders and activists involved in the Hirak and in the organisation of peaceful demonstrations. The deterioration of the human rights situation in Algeria was also highlighted by UN Special Procedures in September 2020, and on 5 March, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner expressed concerned about “the continued and growing repression” and “unnecessary or excessive force (…) to suppress peaceful protests.”

El Salvador

On May 1, only hours after legislators of President Nayib Bukele’s New Ideas party took their seats in the Legislative Assembly, the body—at the president’s behest—dismissed the independent attorney-general as well as five judges of the Constitutional Chamber, El Salvador’s highest court. (See essay by Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez on pp. 19–32.) Denouncing the move, nearly a hundred NGOs that focus on Latin America issued a statement on May 6. Excerpts follow. (For the full statement, see:

These actions, which are contrary to Salvadoran law and the Constitution, end independence of the judiciary, undermine democracy and the rule of law, and further concentrate power in the hands of the presidency. This marks a dangerous step backward after Salvadorans have strived for decades to build peace and democracy, following a painful history of military dictatorship and internal armed conflict.

We stand in solidarity with civil society organizations and human rights activists in El Salvador who are working to defend the human rights of all Salvadorans as well as with the independent journalists working to uncover and report the news. We urge the Salvadoran legislature and President Bukele to restore judicial independence, a cornerstone of the rule of law, and human rights protections—and not to further curb judicial authorities and oversight agencies, including the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. We urge the Salvadoran government to respect the freedom of the press and the rights of human rights groups and other civil society organizations to carry out their vital work. We ask the international community to act decisively to press the Salvadoran government to return to the democratic path. [End Page 190]

Saudi Arabia

In April 2021, the Specialized Criminal Court, a body which has targeted peaceful critics of the Saudi government, sentenced Red Crescent worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to twenty years in prison and banned him from leaving Saudi Arabia for the twenty years after his release. He was arrested in March 2018 for allegedly running a satirical Twitter account. Excerpts follow from a joint letter that several international NGOs sent to the Saudi ambassador to the United States. (For the full letter, see:

We urge government officials, legislators, celebrities, artists, and others to join us in speaking out against this sentence and calling for Mr. Al-Sadhan’s immediate and unconditional release. This sentence—on top of his three-year-long enforced disappearance, and allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual assault, while in custody—is shocking to the conscience. …

Mr. Al-Sadhan is a graduate of Notre Dame de Namur University in California. He returned to Saudi Arabia to work as a humanitarian aid worker for the Saudi Red Crescent. After an anonymous parody account allegedly belonging to him was targeted, plainclothes officers arbitrarily arrested him from the Saudi Red Crescent’s headquarters in Riyadh in March 2018 without providing a warrant or justification. Despite their repeated inquiries, Mr. Al-Sadhan’s family was not informed of his arrest or whereabouts for 23 months. Mr. Al-Sadhan was held without charge, denied his right to family visits and legal representation, and reportedly subject to torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual assault—all for allegedly using social media to criticize the Saudi Arabian government.

In February 2020, Mr. Al-Sadhan was for the first time permitted to make a one-minute phone call to his family in Riyadh, confirming his detention in Al-Ha’ir prison. The next call came one year later, in February of 2021, when he informed his family he had been told by Saudi officials that he would be released. However, instead of being released, he was put on trial before the controversial [Specialized Criminal Court], a counter-terrorism court which has alarmingly been used to issue harsh sentences against peaceful dissidents perceived as critical of the Saudi government.

The charges against him are related to tweets from a popular parody Twitter account which used satire to criticize the Saudi government’s repression and religious establishment. Authorities violated Mr. Sadhan’s right to a fair trial, including denying him access to independent legal counsel of his own choice and subjecting him to two secret hearings without legal counsel, and allegedly extracted a confession through torture which the prosecution presented as evidence. The Court’s verdict is a clear violation of Mr. Al-Sadhan’s right to freedom of expression and sends a clear message to the public that peaceful criticism will be met with severe punishment. [End Page 191]


Copyright © 2021 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press