Session Description: Private messaging and social media apps are very popular around the world. As such, they have attracted attention from authoritarian and democratic governments alike through efforts to both protect and infringe upon people's rights. This panel will feature an inter-disciplinary set of researchers that will examine how social media and messaging apps are being used to promote civic participation, polarization and misinformation, surveillance, and to protect user privacy and enhance security. We will also assess potential next steps for research and what can be done in terms of policy.

This session will be on April 20, 2021 at 2:00pm ET (that is, 6:00pm UTC or 11:30pm IST) and moderated by Dhanaraj Thakur. We will be meeting on Zoom.


Mallory Knodel

Center for Democracy & Technology, USA

Social media private messaging with end-to-end encryption

Many of these messaging apps provide end to end encrypted communication either by default or as an option. Governments and law enforcement agencies have incorrectly argued that encryption undermines national security and have moved to weaken or remove encrypted messaging. What are the human rights implications of these moves and what is the role of research in protecting privacy and encryption on these apps? What is the technical reality of these apps and does it match up with what law enforcement says about them?

Joyojeet Pal

Microsoft Research, India

The Blindspot: Technology, Development and Tiptoeing around Democracy

In the last two decades of academic engagements around technology and development, we have seen initiatives and research focusing largely on access to services in domains such as healthcare, education, and agricultural production. While there has been growing interest and engagement around rights based research and action in gender and accessibility, there has been comparatively less engagement on issues of democratic engagement. In this talk, we consider the role of social media polarization and state control over democratic processes within the discourse of technology and development, and propose that scholars need to play an engaged role in subjects that are messy and risky to their continued engagement in development scholarship.

Maggie Jack

Syracuse University and University of California, Irvine, USA

Networked Authoritarianism at the Edge

With a team of researchers, I conducted a qualitative research study in 2018 that examined how village-level officials in rural Cambodia (who are relatively new internet users) utilize Facebook to supplement and extend long-standing patterns of information control. We found that they used Facebook Newsfeed and Messenger, exclusively on smartphones, to promote local government activities, report to the central government, and monitor local affairs. This monitoring has led to widespread “chilling effects,” a phenomenon that occurs when political activists and citizens stop using the internet for dissent due to intimidation. I argue that this social media withdrawal often emerges more from the lingering psychological effects of historical violence than the sophistication of technological tactics.

Kiran Garimella

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA

Misinformation on WhatsApp?

In this talk, I will present our on-going research on WhatsApp. I will first talk about the tools we built to collect large amounts of WhatsApp data from political groups in India. Next, I will discuss how such data could be useful for journalists, fact checking organizations and researchers, to study various problems, including misinformation and hate. I will present three case studies making use of this data: (i) studying image-based misinformation, showcasing novel ways images are being used to spread false information, (ii) How a closed messaging application is being used for cross-platform coordination and manipulation of Twitter trends, and (iii) the prevalence of a special form of hate speech which we call fear speech — speech inducing fear about a certain group (muslims in our case). Finally, I will conclude with potential solutions to tackle these problems and how end to end encryption on WhatsApp makes it challenging to address them.