The consequences of online discrimination and authoritarianism for minorities

Image courtesy Ameya Nagarajan

Studies have shown that discrimination often correlates with authoritarian preferences. Discrimination against religious minorities, in particular, is more severe in authoritarian regimes than in democratic countries. For example, Myanmar has a long history of repressive military rule, poor governance, and civil war with ethnic minority groups. In addition, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya people by the Myanmarese military has forced more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, while thousands of women and girls have been raped.

Repression has always been one of the toughest challenges that vulnerable communities and groups face. Digital technologies have added new dimensions to what authoritarian regimes can attempt to repress or demobilise. Around the world, groups that have been historically discriminated against face stigma, which serves to exclude them from public participation, markets, services, spaces, and data collection. The battle against exclusion these groups face is exacerbated by inaccessible or unaffordable connectivity. According to the World Bank, people with disabilities, over 1 billion people worldwide, face barriers to communication, interaction, access to information, and participation in civic society activities. Although digital technologies are helping overcome some of these barriers, their mere existence is insufficient to bridge the gaps in the socio-economic ecosystem for people with disadvantages.

Too often, the most vulnerable groups are more prone to discrimination and harassment because offline targets are usually the same victims of online abuse, in particular, young women, racial minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Frequently, the disparate impact of technology affects women and marginalised groups more, as they are less likely to access the internet and exercise their rights to digital speech. As the digitalisation of economics expands worldwide, gender inequality in the physical world is replicated in the digital world. Consequently, women and other marginalised groups have fewer employment opportunities and face additional barriers to workforce participation. Moreover, the harm these people experience is made worse by how harmful content spreads across the internet at a speed and scale that is almost impossible to control. The internet thus reinforces the same discrimination that marginalised groups have historically battled, discouraging them from online public participation and making their social integration ever more difficult than it already is.

Online harassment has shamefully become one of the main features of the world web. Today, it is hard to imagine the internet without it. From online violence to authoritarian governments silencing dissent, online toxicity is common to almost all internet users. While evidence shows that any person is susceptible to online harassment, extensive research shows that women, people of colour, religious minorities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community are far more likely to be targeted. The growth of the internet has expanded this problem and the ways people can be targeted; with the rise of smartphones, harassment is now a 24/7 problem for people who have been historically discriminated against.

The efforts to fight online discrimination are largely failing. According to the latest report by the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, online hate is only getting worse for vulnerable groups. In most countries, three-quarters or more of the targets of online hate speech are members of minority groups, with women being disproportionately targeted. Similarly,  LGBTQ+ individuals, Muslims, Hispanics or Latinos, and Black people faced especially high rates of identity-based discrimination in the United States, making it harder and less safe to be online as a member of any of these groups.

At the same time, governments have deployed sophisticated strategies to increase the repression of these groups. That is the case in Egypt, where police have used apps like Grindr to arbitrarily track, arrest, and torture members of the LGBTQ+ community. Similarly, authorities and intelligence agencies require Tinder to store its users’ data (including messages and pictures) on local servers in Russia, while the app has been pushed as a source of sensitive information online during the Ukraine invasion. Meanwhile, after the region’s takeover by the Taliban in 2021, people in Afghanistan are trying to delete any information related to their past and political views on their social media profiles to avoid persecution. Regrettably, the Taliban have used these platforms to threaten and track some members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Although the internet is not a virtual space completely separated from the offline realm, it is also not a mere replica of the real world. Digital technologies have introduced new dynamics within the online world that were never witnessed before. Furthermore, digital platforms have developed new ways for people to interact and construct their own identities through their design and algorithms. However, these new dynamics introduced by large tech companies are also affecting disadvantaged communities. Although there may be a few attempts to decrease the unbalanced impact that these technologies have against these groups, the reality proves that the most vulnerable groups are those who are segregated and expelled from online participation.

Concentrated minority groups are seen as threats by authoritarian regimes because they are more likely to mobilise and engage in collective action. Considering that the overarching goal of such regimes is to remain in power and maintain control over society, dissenting minority groups are often the target of harassment campaigns. Thus, it is expected that online and offline discrimination campaigns are promoted in order to silence opposing views. However, the digital realm has increased authoritarian regimes’ capacity to penetrate different levels of society and mobilise majoritarian groups against minorities through the internet.

Last, with minorities forming the overwhelming majority of targets of online hate speech and being one of the main targets of authoritarian regimes, social media platforms must prioritise their efforts to address hate speech. Although some platforms are already moving in this direction, there is still a long way to go. All of this makes it clear that understanding and addressing discrimination strengthens the capacity of countries and institutions to respond and prevent digital authoritarianism. Rigorous monitoring of authoritarian practices is thus a crucial requirement and an instrument for recovering the voice that is often taken away from marginalised groups.

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