Andrew Lowenthal spent more than two decades defending digital rights, and watched as peers and partner organizations switched to an opposite mission called “anti-disinformation.” An inside account
I knew things were bad in my world, but the truth turned out to be much worse than I could have imagined.
My name is Andrew Lowenthal. I am a progressive-minded Australian who for almost 18 years was the Executive Director of EngageMedia, an Asia-based NGO focused on human rights online, freedom of expression, and open technology. My resume also includes fellowships at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. For most of my career, I believed strongly in the work I was doing, which I believed was about protecting and expanding digital rights and freedoms.
[Read the accompanying #TwitterFile – The Informational Cartel]
In recent years, however, I watched in despair as a dramatic change swept through my field. As if all at once, organizations and colleagues with whom I’d worked for years began de-emphasizing freedom of speech and expression, and shifted focus to a new arena: fighting “disinformation.”
Long before the #TwitterFiles, and certainly before responding to a Racket call for freelancers to help “Knock Out the Mainstream Propaganda Machine,” I’d been raising concerns about the weaponization of “anti-disinformation” as a tool for censorship. For EngageMedia team members in Myanmar, Indonesia, India, or the Philippines, the new elite Western consensus of giving governments greater power to decide what could be said online was the opposite of the work we were doing.
When Malaysian and Singaporean governments introduced “fake news” laws, EngageMedia supported networks of activists campaigning against it. We ran digital security workshops for journalists and human rights advocates under threat from government attack, both virtual and physical. We developed an independent video platform to route around Big Tech censorship and supported campaigners in Thailand fighting government attempts to suppress free expression. In Asia, government interference in speech and expression was the norm. Progressive activists in search of more political freedom often looked to the West for moral and financial support. Now the West is turning against the core value of free expression, in the name of fighting disinformation.
Before being put in charge of tracking anti-disinformation groups and their funders for this Racket project, I thought I had a strong idea of just how big this industry was. I’d been swimming in the broader digital rights field for two decades and saw the rapid growth of anti-disinformation initiatives up close. I knew many of the key organizations and their leaders, and EngageMedia had itself been part of anti-disinformation projects.
Categories: Tech Censorship
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