Social media and human rights:
Opportunities for reshaping democratic engagement
Mahinda Samarasinghe -Minister of Plantation Industries and Special
Envoy of the President on Human Rights
On December 10, the world celebrates the 63rd Anniversary of the
adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UDHR). This critical document born out of the
international post-World War II determination to establish a new world
order that would not see a repetition of the horrors of that experience,
set a global standard and basis for what we now regard as international
human rights law.
Inspired by this document, specific international treaties and
regional instruments came into being, expanded and gave life to the
principles and norms of the seminal Declaration. This year, the theme of
the celebration is Social Media and Human Rights. Given the
technological developments and the spread of internet and mobile
technologies, this becomes a key consideration for people and
governments the world over. Moreover, given the reported role played by
a range of social media in democratic upheavals and protest in several
jurisdictions, we must all pay due regard to the possibilities,
potential and usefulness of this new form of interaction. We must also
be aware of the undoubted risks and dangers and the unintended negative
consequences of this form of interaction.
Social media has exploded and touches many lives across most
continents. Connecting people using a myriad of applications across
varied platforms, the exponential growth of this media, heralds in a new
age of participatory engagement which can truly be said to be the advent
of Web 2.0. The participatory nature of this development using more user
input and content and interactivity as opposed to one way information
flows, is both exciting and challenging.
From the perspective of democratic government and human rights,
social media holds out much promise. The traditional view of government
in a democracy is that people have the right to vote at regular,
genuinely competitive elections, to run for elected office and to access
public office and services. The applicable human rights standard is
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR) which finds its origin in Article 21 of the UDHR. Article 25
posits that -
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any
of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 (relating to
non-discrimination)and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or
through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which
shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret
ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service
in his (or her) country.
What is important in this context is the phrase 'To take part in the
conduct of public affairs, directly'. The Human Rights Committee, the
treaty-based body that is established by and oversees the implementation
of the Covenant, in its general comments on the interpretation and
implementation of Article 25, explains that participation is not mere
passive participation during the electoral process and then a hiatus for
a fixed period while those elected are left to themselves to govern.
Though direct, democratic systems such as that of the Athenian State now
would be unwieldy.
The advent of the World Wide Web and other technologies makes it more
possible to follow your government, to discuss matters of public
importance and perhaps most importantly, make your views known either
individually or collectively. More enlightened governments now offer
web-based opportunities for online consultation with their citizens in
making and refining policy. This is the revolutionary quality of the web
which offers more real hope for truly informed citizens to make a
contribution to matters that directly concerns their lives and those of
fellow citizens. The previously more limited platform of mobile
technology and communication is now seeing exponential growth and is
developing into an equally effective mode of communication.
Interactivity and collective inter-communication through this medium is
gaining ground through much greater penetration of the market. All of
this holds out limitless potential for citizen participation and
Of course there are directly allied rights to Article 25 which are
necessary in order to make participation in public affairs a reality.
The freedom to access information and the rights to form and express
opinion as well as the right to peacefully assemble in political or
other groupings must be guaranteed. If not, the 'conversation' becomes
ill-informed, bound to misdirection or manipulation and becomes the very
antithesis of informed and reasoned argument and democratic discourse.
It is said that these exchanges in the virtual world tend towards the
survival of the loudest and most opinionated of views. It is not the
most sober, well-thought out and the best considered ideas that
necessarily hold sway.
Thus in order to guarantee the rights to participation, governments
must themselves be more open, welcoming of and sensitive to constructive
criticism and be willing to listen. It must also put in place the
infrastructure necessary to grant easy access to information resources
and must be open about informing and communicating with its citizenry.
The citizens themselves must be educated and empowered to take part in
this discourse in an enlightened and responsible manner. This is why our
government’s efforts to take these technologies to the previously
underserviced and underserved periphery and to promote e-literacy can
have important positive implications for democracy and human rights
promotion and protection.
The recent advent of the mass movements known as the so-called
'Facebook Revolutions' that happened in West Asia and North Africa
during the 'Arab Spring' and the 'Occupy' movements were mass
mobilizations which owed some of their force and momentum to social
media and mobile communications. It demonstrated that gatherings in the
virtual world can be transformed into mass meetings and protests in the
real world. Indeed some have now developed web-based services that
facilitate these encounters in actuality. While the eventual success of
these movements cannot be judged in such a short time frame, in some
cases the objective – to remedy perceived political repression or to
protest economic and social inequity and inequality – have sometimes
resulted in situations in which the human rights of fellow citizens are
Social media, therefore, like all technology, can be used for
positive gains and also less useful purposes. As I have said the
discourse must be reasoned, factual, independent of external influence
and dispassionate to a degree. Democratic rights do not extend to
creating anarchy due to some distaste for the current social, economic
or political structure or system.
The interesting facet of these communications is that they are not
regulated. Internet content regulation or censorship is extremely
difficult to impose and police because of the very architecture of the
system. Like all censorship it must only be used in the most extreme
cases to prevent great social harm. In multi-cultural societies such as
ours, careful consideration must be paid to those exacerbating tensions
between constituent communities of society.
Some countries use old sedition laws to punish persons who could,
through ill-considered or malicious communication, cause ill-will at the
least or ethnic conflagrations at the worst. Distribution of morally
harmful content, incitement to violence, defamation and character
assassination – often with no accountability – are all dangers that our
legal systems must cope with.
The abuse of the right to personal privacy and protection of personal
data must also receive our due attention.
Conversely, social media can be used creatively to share common
understanding and build bridges between communities.
To be continued