How the battle for democracy will be fought — and won

By the Editorial Board.  Washington Post Dec 22nd 2023

In September last year, three days after widespread protests broke out across Iran over the death of a young woman detained for not fully covering her hair with a hijab, the authorities blocked the internet.

Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old from Iran’s Kurdistan province, had been visiting Tehran with her family when the morality police arrested her. Her family says she was beaten in jail, and she died in a hospital on Sept. 16. Around the country, people took to the streets, led by women demanding the right to dress as they chose.

The government cut off internet access in parts of Kurdistan, Tehran and elsewhere, according to NetBlocks, which tracks internet outages. Iran’s theocratic rulers apparently intended to keep demonstrators in the dark about protests spreading in neighboring towns and cities. Both WhatsApp and Instagram were shut down.

But a little-known channel helped millions of Iranians stay in the know. A nongovernmental organization in Los Angeles, NetFreedom Pioneers, had created a method to bypass the internet entirely and broadcast files — text, audio or video — from commercial satellites to anyone with a receiver dish. It is called Toosheh, or Knapsack. The group collected photos and news reports from social media platforms and elsewhere, uploaded them to a satellite and then down to homes in blacked-out Iran. The news was easily shareable on a flash drive.

Toosheh, founded by an Iranian émigré, brought fresh and uncensored information into a censored country, offering a ray of hope in the struggle between forces of dictatorship and democracy.

For more than a decade and a half, autocracy has been steadily advancing around the globe. Dictators routinely arrest their foes, including those demanding basic rights such as freedom of expression. But they have modernized their methods, taking control of the internet and using it to broadcast disinformation while censoring the truth. They have forced independent media to close and aimed surveillance at social media and the people who use it. They have created firewalls and imposed internet shutdowns. Freedom House found in its latest annual survey of political rights and civil liberties that democracy has been in decline for 17 years — and one of the biggest drivers has been attacks on freedom of expression.

But there are ways to confront the forces of authoritarianism, especially on the information battlefield, where the future of democracy may be decided for millions of people. The stakes are enormous: Will open societies thrive and grow, or will more of the globe fall under the sway of dictatorships such as the one in China, where information manipulation is the norm and surveillance technology watches over everyone, all the time?

Breaking through the firewalls

What makes Toosheh effective is its simplicity. It uses existing technology and current set-top boxes and commercial satellite receivers. Although Iran’s government has tried to prohibit ownership of satellite dishes, the ban is barely enforced, and they have proliferated. Evan Firoozi, executive director of NetFreedom Pioneers, estimated that Toosheh has reached 10 percent of the households in Iran, which has a population of about 90 million.

Every day, Toosheh recipients can download 1.2 gigabytes of data an hour for up to four hours. The files are scrambled but reassembled on arrival into their native formats, such as videos, photos or texts, transferrable directly to a flash drive. The system requires nothing new — the satellites are already in position, and NetFreedom Pioneers can be up and running in any part of the world in less than 24 hours. It is rapidly scalable. While Iran has tried periodically to jam the satellite signals in some places, it hasn’t been able to block the transmissions entirely or permanently.

“One of the main reasons for the protests to spread around the country is that people are hearing that other people are protesting,” Mr. Firoozi told us. “So they get the courage to go out and start protesting.” Toosheh delivers straight news so people can see what is happening elsewhere. The project could be used for closed societies outside Iran, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, as well as for populations caught in wars or natural disasters.

Another promising approach is known as internet circumvention, allowing people online to pierce firewalls, evade censorship and gain free access to independent information from around the globe. Not long ago, circumvention techniques, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), which create a separate, protected tunnel through the internet, were a niche technology with an uneven record. Now they have improved, and the number of users has exploded.

From 2012 to 2019, Radio Free Asia nurtured an in-house pilot program, the Open Technology Fund, to find ways to evade censorship and surveillance for both its audiences and its journalists. In 2019, the effort was spun out into an independent nonprofit, with congressional funding of $40 million this year, working to bolster circumvention tools and protect the security and privacy of users. Previously, users looked to circumvention tools only when there was a crisis — there would be a spike, then usage would settle back down. “In the last two years, that has completely changed,” Laura Cunningham, the fund’s director, told us. The circumvention tools, apps such as Psiphon and Lantern, have become an everyday reality. As many as 1 in 4 adults in Iran are using them. Worldwide, the number of average monthly users of the circumvention tools supported by the Open Technology Fund has soared from 9 million to 40 million.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty saw demand for its coverage soar, about half of it from Russia and half from Ukraine. (The organization suspended operations inside Russia following years of pressure from the government, relocating staff to Prague and elsewhere.) To avoid censorship or interference from Moscow, the Open Technology Fund scrambled in a matter of months to build a system of mirror sites that would allow users in Russia to seamlessly access the RFE/RL news stories from social media without using a complex VPN. The sites are essentially reproductions, and users from within Russia can get to them unimpeded when they click on short URLs. They are now in place for 342 websites of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, assuring that such outlets as Voice of America and RFE/RL can continue to reach audiences in closed societies. The mirrors remove the burden from the user, making circumvention much easier for millions of readers and viewers.

Helping protesters see one another

In China’s authoritarian system, the knowledge of protests — what happened, where and when — is prohibited information. The government stopped publishing data about “mass incidents” more than a decade ago, and independent researchers who collected it have been arrested. China fears contagion: If people find out others are protesting, they might be inspired to follow. There are many protests in China, but the censors go to great effort to scrub them from news and social media, especially when they start to get shared.

All through the summer and early autumn last year, protests took place against China’s rigid “zero covid” policy, which imposed draconian lockdowns. Then, on Nov. 24, came a fire in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in western China that is home to a persecuted minority, the ethnic Uyghurs. Around 8 p.m., a high-rise residential building erupted in flames. With the area locked down for covid, at least 10 people — and maybe as many as 44 — were killed, trapped in the building. The blaze deepened the anger in the country.

Two days later, students at a university in Nanjing began holding up blank sheets of paper, a protest tactic to evade censorship or arrest while also mocking it. The white-paper protests spread to other universities, and then demonstrations broke out in major cities. Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor found 75 protest events that week. Social media posts, protest signs and other images spread online faster than China’s censors could scrub them; people learned about others’ grievances, protests and dissent.

A month earlier, a courageous dissident, Peng Lifa, had hung protest banners from the Sitong Bridge in Beijing just as the Communist Party was convening for its congress held every five years. He criticized zero-covid policies and demanded political reform, including the ouster of President Xi Jinping. After the Urumqi fire, in demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, protesters invoked language from Mr. Peng’s banner, including “We don’t want lockdowns, we want to eat.” The result was a decentralized movement — people were communicating indirectly through signs and slogans.

China’s security services rounded up students in the white-paper protests. But it was too late. The movement had rattled China’s leadership. On Dec. 7, Mr. Xi abruptly reversed the zero-covid policy.

A key takeaway: Seeing people actively protest inspires others who share their dissatisfaction. Making this happen is a goal of the China Dissent Monitor, a project that Freedom House started last year. Using artificial intelligence and other methods, it harvests and preserves information about dissent from multiple sources before Chinese censors erase it and charts the events in a database, creating an open record. While it is still difficult to get the information disseminated inside China, the group is trying different channels, including VPNs. The China Dissent Monitor has also built a gallery of photos and videos of demonstrations inside the country, a kind of Instagram of Chinese protest that is a powerful tool to show China’s people the breadth of activism — just what the government wants to hide.

During the white-paper protests, Li Ying, a Chinese artist in his 30s living in Italy, known as “Teacher Li,” had a huge impact. Out of reach of China’s censors, he collected protest information and images sent to him on Twitter, then broadcast them in a stream of reports in real time, becoming a singular point of contact for those who wanted to know what was happening. Through Mr. Li, the protesters were able to “see” one another. Although Twitter is blocked in China by the Great Firewall, people on the mainland can access it through VPNs. According to the Wall Street Journal, his posts from late November to mid-December last year had more than 1.3 billion views, a brilliant example of circumvention at work.

Mr. Li wrote an open letter to the Chinese authorities in the early days of the protests, saying he had received death threats and insisting they back off. “I’m not afraid of you anymore,” he wrote. “Don’t try to silence me.” He warned he would be replaced by others if anything happened to him.

Toward a new playbook

While these efforts are pushing back against autocracy, democracies need to do far more.

Russia and China, friends “without limits,” often assert that democracy has run its course, that it is incapable of governing, that authoritarian models work better. President Vladimir Putin of Russia told a conservative audience recently that the ideas of the United States have become “decrepit” and added, “We see it, and everyone sees it now. It is getting out of control and is simply dangerous for others.” Both Russia and China have launched fusillades of disinformation intended to confuse people, besmirch democracy and subvert it from within. For example, Facebook announced recently that it had removed 4,789 fake accounts based in China that were impersonating Americans and intended to create chaos in the lead-up to next year’s U.S. presidential election. The illiberal regimes are at war with the democracies on the battlefield of information and ideas. The democracies are taking a battering — and need to respond.

Sanctions are slow and don’t often result in change. For instance, the United States in August sanctioned 101 officials in Belarus for falsifying results of the 2020 election there, including visa bans on judges who sentenced people to prison for social media posts. But the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, went right on arresting people and imprisoning them.

The United States has a well-established set of programs to advance democracy, overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy. They provide training in independent media, draft laws, bolster civil society and encourage free elections around the world. There’s also important work in journalism from the outlets under the U.S. Agency for Global Media, such as Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, which are designed to offer straight news and information and thus contribute to advancing democratic ideals. They are essential. But the existing U.S. government democracy effort, about $3 billion a year, less than four-tenths of a percent of the defense budget, is grossly under-resourced compared with the investments made by Russia and China.

It has long been true that the strongest argument for democracy around the world is the example of the United States. But the showcase is no longer enough. Powerful dictatorships that rely on deceit and manipulation are using new tools and technologies. Democracies need new thinking to respond.

One place to start is to build an uninhibited rebuttal of the narrative offered by dictatorships. A counternarrative must assert the basic values and ideals of democracy in a way that is credible and persuasive. The world’s democracies should create a system to fight back that can speak plainly and consistently about the inherent advantages of democratic systems, while admitting the imperfections, and use creative ways to illuminate the flaws and depredations of authoritarian regimes.

This will require hard work by the Biden administration, Congress and democratic allies around the world. It must go beyond summits and talking.Perhaps there is a model in the way that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reimagined problem-solving in global public health. Or perhaps existing U.S. organizations — such as Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Agency for Global Media — and similar groups here and abroad can, together, build a renewed campaign. It will require a major boost in resources. It must speak with absolute clarity; foreign audiences will be sensitive to spin and put off by clumsy sloganeering.

The mission is no less than explaining to the world why freedom matters to everyone, every day.

Authoritarian regimes often suffer brain drain. Open societies should leverage this for a renewed battle for democracy, taking advantage of talent spread around the world. Diasporas are rich with knowledge and should be brought into the effort.

Another idea is to focus more urgently on countries that are sliding backward but have not yet fallen entirely into dictatorship. It makes sense to catch them sooner rather than later. Remember the shining moment when Sudan’s population seemed headed for a democratic opening after the overthrow of dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir? Could more have been done to save Sudan’s future for democracy before it fell into civil war? Often there is a fragile and rapidly closing window for action.

These are a few ideas, but the most important message is that autocracy is on the march in today’s world, and democracy must confront this profound threat.