The internet has given dictatorships powerful new tools to harass religious minorities
It was late last year, and I was witnessing a new form of religious persecution. In front of me, millions of tweets had been turned into metrics: lines, graphs, dots and splashes of colour. They showed a big group of Twitter accounts, who had all joined the platform together in August 2015. Obsessed with sport at first, their early online lives were dedicated to sharing fitness tips, mixed in with the odd piece of news or current affairs. Then during Britain’s EU referendum in 2016, the group became more political. “UK is free!” one said. “We want our country back!” said another. They were largely ignored.
In 2017, British cities were hit by terror attacks. First in Westminster in March, then Manchester in May and London Bridge in June. And in their wake, the same accounts started sending message after message attacking Muslims. They complained of a “Muslim invasion” of Europe and called Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London, an extremist. And this time, their messages weren’t ignored. Thousands of others responded and shared these messages, making them spread far across the internet. On the surface, all of this looked organic, spontaneous and angry, but it was far from being any of these things.
In 2012, I’d co-founded a team at the think tank Demos that was dedicated to researching social media, building tech ourselves to work out what was really going on online. And as we looked deeper, we could tell that, far from being chaotic, all this activity was clinical, strategic and professional. The accounts we were analysing weren’t civilians. They had gone through a “strategic infiltration” phase, gone dormant and then, suddenly, been activated. Each and every one of them was operated by the Russian state. Online, it looked like a mob, but it was really more like a disciplined army.
It was a strange mix: venomous religious antipathy, social media agitators and states (or at least organised groups). But over the last few years, this same toxic combination has been seen elsewhere. In Burma, the United Nations has said that Facebook played a “determining role” in building anger towards the Rohingya minority, as it failed to take down thousands upon thousands of posts that dehumanised them. A researcher has found that thousands of automated Twitter accounts were producing pro-government, anti-Shia propaganda in Saudi Arabia. The Anti-Defamation League produced a report concluding that Jewish Americans experienced coordinated doxxing (sharing private details online), disinformation and politically motivated threats during the 2018 mid-term elections.
And those same accounts that we were watching targeted Christians too. They reportedly started a page called “Army of Jesus” offering free counselling for sex addiction, but may have used it to blackmail anyone who responded.
Back in 2014, Christians in Parliament, an All-Party Parliamentary Group at Westminster, issued a report on the persecution of Christians in Iran that expressed the fear that they could be identified because of what they posted online.
And in China now, there is a concern that, in order to crackdown on religious groups, the state might use not only the power of digital technology to spread ideas but also its enormous capacity to collect data. The vision of the Chinese government is to create a score for each of its citizens, starkly quantifying their social and economic standing (in the eyes of the state). Go into debt and the score goes down. Commit a crime and the score goes down further. Any possible behaviour could be integrated into this kind of vast wraparound system, including political activism, who your friends are – or your faith. A low score could limit people’s access to jobs, travel and ownership.
Information revolutions and religious persecution have often appeared side by side. Radio stations certainly played a significant role during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Television stoked up Serbian and Kosovan nationalism, and continues to do so. But we need to reach back further down the centuries to find something that feels similar to today. All the way back to the 15th century and Johannes Gutenberg.
The German blacksmith mixed metal alloys, invented new inks and finally converted an old wine press into something that would change the world. His invention was the printing press: the first way of mass-producing books. It must have felt like a liberation just as potent as any that the internet has brought about: the Bible – God’s Word itself – spreading and multiplying. By 1480, 87 new books had been printed; by 1500, there were 15,000. By 1550, more than eight million.
Both the printing press and the internet weren’t just widely adopted; they also radically changed the society that invented them. They both led a reading public to encounter radical arguments that they simply wouldn’t have seen or heard about before, and both caused information to start flowing around society in different ways.
Obviously, religious strife existed long before the printing press, the television, the internet or any other piece of technology. But just like the printing press, the web has suddenly made mass messaging and mobilisation much easier. Previously, reaching people – painstakingly building lists of members and supporters – took time and effort. Organisations such as political parties, trade unions and charities needed money, contacts and experience to get their message out. Today, mobilisation has taken on a different character. New protests seem to come from nowhere, spontaneously. The trigger now tends to be an event – a scandal or tipping point – rather than an organisational decision. A movement that hadn’t existed a few days ago could be millions strong tomorrow. Forming groups is easier than ever, as is finding others who agree with you, and those with whom you completely disagree. Suddenly creating religious strife is easier, cheaper and more convenient to do than ever before.
The question always was – always is – who is in control of the technology and what are they using it for? The printing press began as a tool against the state, but quickly became a weapon for it. States brought in censorship laws, bans on imports and, of course, operated many printing presses themselves to churn out the messages and calls to action that they wanted. The same is now happening with the internet. Those bots, online propaganda and trolls were all part of capabilities that states, liberal democratic and autocratic alike, have been building to better control the internet.
This whole apparatus, especially in the vision of autocratic regimes, sometimes has religious strife as its deliberate aim. They called it “information operations”, “information manoeuvre” or, in Russia’s formulation, “moral-psychological-cognitive-informational struggle”. Whatever the name, however, it is about using the internet to achieve certain ends.
Russia’s own online apparatus has pushed themes from police brutality to racial tensions, online privacy concerns to alleged government misconduct, and gun rights to transgender issues. But the focus is always on topics that drive wedges between communities living in nations abroad. This has often included using social media to create voices that both pretend to be religious and to target people who are.
What began, at least in part, with the Gutenberg press ended with the Counter-Reformation. There was the Thirty Years War, and countless prosecutions, denunciations, schisms and sufferings. Incumbents were dethroned. Settlements were undermined and balances came unstuck. The printing revolution created a world of new possibilities, but also of danger and turmoil as the social order noisily realigned.
Each epoch is different, and thankfully our own hasn’t seen this level of religious violence yet (at least in the West). But if there are warnings that can be borne from that time to our own, it may be this: making ourselves more connected is not the same as bringing people closer together; that information can be weaponised. And that a liberation of information and a persecution using it can really be the same thing.
Carl Miller is research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. He is the author of The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab (William Heinemann)