A report from the charity Open Doors has warned that religious minorities face an “Orwellian existence” under growing digital persecution.
It says that surveillance technology and states’ monitoring of social media has been combined with censorship and disinformation on digital platforms to target religious minorities.
Open Doors, which campaigns for persecuted Christians worldwide, published the report in partnership with the universities of Birmingham and Roehampton. Its release coincided with the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which meets in London today and tomorrow.
“We watch on as mobs and terror groups around the world are making use of digital platforms to tighten their grip over religious minorities,” said Dr David Landrum, director of advocacy and media for Open Doors UK.
“Most shocking of all, governments are turning a blind eye to this, or even actively encouraging the violent, oppressive behaviour.”
The report cites the Chinese government’s extensive use of surveillance technology to attack religious communities, and the role of online disinformation in fomenting hostility towards minorities in India.
It also notes the growth of digital persecution in other countries in Africa and central Asia, such as Myanmar where stories spread online blaming Christians and other minorities for spreading Covid-19. In Libya, internet monitoring is used to target those who access Christian resources online.
Criticising the lack coverage of digital persecution in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s latest human rights report, Open Doors has called for the UK government to prioritise research and action on the issue. It also recommends cooperation with international institutions to establish ethical standards on the development and export of surveillance technologies.
In a foreword to the report, Sam Brownback, the former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious freedom, warns that the Chinese government has turned Xinjiang province into “a laboratory” for “technological oppression”.
“The Uyghurs there have effectively become a marketing tool to sell these technologies all over the world – a beta test for a virtual police state,” he wrote.
Other recommendations in the report include calls for digital companies and social media platforms to respond robustly to disinformation and states’ demands for censorship, and “to uphold human rights and civil liberties, resisting these demands from authoritarian regimes”.
The report says there is “time now to achieve consensus on such technology and establish regulation to protect individuals”. Mr Brownback described this as “a defining moment for countries who value freedom and human rights”.