When things got desperate my parents signed letters. Letters which could cost them their safety and freedom. But they felt that not to sign was to acquiesce to the immorality of the regime when it arrested people for simply speaking their mind.
This was in the Soviet Union, during the late 1970s, in the frosty years of the Cold War. Public letters addressed to the West were a desperate form of resistance: If one could raise enough noise among the powerful perhaps they could lobby for a political prisoner’s release; if there was enough public outcry, maybe the Soviet leadership could be shamed into softening a sentence.
Forty years later, as I sat down to write a similar letter in the face of a regime’s intimidation, I found myself at a loss. Though I face none of the dangers that my parents did, I also had no idea who and what to appeal to—or how. Who was I to address the letter to? Which powerful people will help a dissident? Are the rights fought for so bitterly in the 20th century still meaningful? What can a letter ever hope to achieve?
The letter I wanted to write was in support of the journalist Maria Ressa and her pioneering news site “Rappler,” which has won millions of readers in the Philippines since it started up in 2011. Rappler have been attacked for their thorough reporting on the extrajudicial killings carried out by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.
As punishment for doing her job well, Maria now faces trumped up charges of tax evasion. She risks imprisonment. Rappler may vanish entirely. We have seen this pattern repeated worldwide: The regime picks a victim, makes an example of them, and thus breaks the whole industry.
As I looked for guidance on how to write a letter in support of Maria I dug out one of the most famous letters by a Soviet dissident: Andrei Sakharov’s, published in the New York Times in 1977. Sakharov addressed his letter directly to then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter:
Dear Mr Carter, it’s very important to defend those who suffer because of their nonviolent struggle, for openness, for justice, for destroyed rights….our and your duty is to fight for them. I think a great deal depends on this struggle—trust between the people, trust in high promises and the final result—international security.
It was not an empty appeal. The letter was written in the run-up to a U.S.-Soviet summit in Belgrade, organized to assess the USSR’s implementation of human rights accords it had signed up to the previous year in Helsinki. American leaders sometimes raised human rights concerns at the highest level, which at the very least could be used to show that the U.S. system was superior to the Soviet. Individual political prisoners could be released in exchanges. In the 1970s an increasing number were allowed to leave the USSR. The United States built trade deals with the USSR which factored in an improvement in human rights as part of the negotiation.
And today? The blatant murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside his own country’s consulate in Turkey has been shrugged off as an irrelevance by Donald Trump. Not only does this U.S. President no longer regard it as important to fight for “destroyed rights,” he presides over a climate where attacks on journalists have become commonplace. Last year, Freedom House—an organization originally set up to help the U.S. promote democracy in unfree societies—downgraded America’s “freedom of expression” ranking, citing: “Fake news and aggressive trolling of journalists. . .[that] contributed to a score decline in the United States’ otherwise generally free environment.”
As the United States becomes more like the governments it used to censure, so they become emboldened to continue on the same path. This is especially true in the Philippines, a country with which the United States has clout.
Sakharov saw the “struggle” for rights and freedoms as intrinsically connected to something larger—“international security.” Today, we see political black holes emerging across the world, where there are no values anymore, where the powerful only observe rules that suit them, indeed where a sign of being powerful is the ability to impose any norms you want.
The Donetsk People’s Republic, the ISIS caliphate, the bombing of civilians in Aleppo and Yemen, and the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are all such black holes, spaces where regimes revel in rejecting the idea that there are universal ideals to adhere to in the first place.
The murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is a black hole opening up in the middle of a diplomatic mission. Human rights and humanitarian norms have been undermined many times before, but now no one seems to even care if they are caught, as if their very notion is non-existent. In 1977 the Soviet Union had at least notionally made a commitment to them and would be upbraided for failing on to uphold them. “Respect your own laws” was the clarion call of the dissident movement. Now disrespecting laws is the point.
Alongside the question of who to address a letter to, there is also the issue of what exactly one is defending. Sakharov’s letter assumed the rights and freedoms he invokes to be self-evident. At one point in the letter he begins to list them, citing “freedom of belief, and information, freedom of conscience, freedom of the choice of the country of living.” And then, he adds a casual “etc.”—assuming everyone understands what he means.
Today those “rights” can be harder to define. Rappler, for instance, was first targeted by a vicious online mob that smeared their reporters with false accusations of bias and said they were acting for covert interests. Next, staff were intimidated with death and rape threats, and there were calls for Maria, the editor, to be arrested. At one point, Rappler was being hit with 90 negative online messages every minute. The timing and structure of the attacks suggests they were not organic but organized, channeled through coordinated fake accounts.
The playbook is similar across the world: These digital mobs first attempt to destroy journalists’ credibility to turn people against them. This paves the way for an arrest. But while the aims are old, to intimidate and silence critics, the method is new. Online mobs allow the government to claim a degree of deniability. Before the KGB used to come for you. Now it’s anonymous accounts on Twitter. Who is responsible? If before it was oppressive regimes censoring critics fighting for freedom of speech, now it is the online mobs who claim they are the ones exercising the right to freedom of speech themselves. Democrats have always campaigned for uncensored expression, they argue: Well here it is!
“Do you know the truth about the plight of religions in the USSR?” Sakharov writes towards the end of his letter. This “do you know the truth” question is indicative: In the 20th century it was assumed that if the facts came out, they would have an impact. What is so striking today is that we have more facts than ever before about the blatant abuse of humanitarian norms, from Syria to Yemen. We can even observe, on social media, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. Yet this knowledge does not even ensure outrage, let alone a response. But if getting the truth out doesn’t mean anything, what is the point of writing letters in the New York Times?
But even as the old architecture of power and meaning has dissolved, there are new ways to try and make a letter matter.
First of all: There are new loci of power to lobby. In the case of Maria Ressa they are most obviously the social media and tech giants, on whose platforms these coordinated hate campaigns are being waged. Users of Facebook, Twitter, and Google are entitled to security. It is the duty of these platforms to protect their users against harassment, threats of violence, and coordinated smears affecting their fundamental rights.
For state-sponsored trolling needs to be seen for what it is: a new form of human rights abuse. As the brilliant human and digital rights researcher Camille Francois has laid out in a study she led on the subject, state-sponsored trolling is an attack on freedom of expression, silencing the victim through harassment, abuse, hate speech and purposeful disinformation. It is censorship though noise. “We observe the tactical move by states from an ideology of information scarcity to one of information abundance,” writes the philosopher Tim Wu, “which sees speech itself as a censorial weapon.”
States who in any way empower such campaigns are responsible, under their international human rights obligations. Even if they do not run them directly, if they instigate, encourage and fan the flames, they are to blame. The Magnitsky Act, originally drawn up in the United States to penalize Russian human rights abusers with financial sanctions, is increasingly being adopted by other countries, and with a wider target list. Could this be a model for targeting those responsible for assailing human rights online?
Indeed, the more one looks at it, today’s interconnected world has far more levers with which to influence a government such as Duterte’s than were available during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was all but hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Compare that to the Philippines today, which has the highest social media usage in the world, and is closely integrated into global markets.
The question remains how to get the message out? Letters have lost their dramatic value. In 1977, it was a heroic achievement for Sakharov just to make himself heard in the outside world from his exile in the Russian provinces. “Telephone communications with the West are blocked completely, and no telephone conversations reach me,” he wrote to the Times. Today, communication is so easy it can be meaningless. A letter in a mainstream newspaper no longer has the same unique status.
But there are social media campaigns. Automated fake accounts can be countered with persistence and genuine enthusiasm by real people. The secret is for movements and individuals around the world to start seeing that a crisis far away is also their problem: A journalist trolled and terrorized in Manila is attacked with the same methods and the same technology that is used in the United States.
As Maria Ressa herself put it: “Our problems are fast becoming your problems. Boundaries around the world collapse and we can begin to see a kind of global playbook.”
The campaign to support Maria Ressa started off using the hashtag “Hold the Line.” The question is: which line?
For Sakharov, the line between democracy and authoritarian politics was drawn along the borders of human rights. Digital rights can be a similar line today. For that to happen, democracies need to overhaul our information space with the same boldness that was shown in drawing up the Helsinki Human Rights Accords in the 1970s. Clear norms are needed, establishing people’s rights online. Protecting them against online abuse is the first step.
It is also important to clarify how data is used, so that when a citizen logs on, their personal information is not used to covertly manipulate them, secretly playing on their fears or fueling anger. To be empowered digital citizens people need to know how and why they are being targeted with content and by whom, and why algorithms provide them with some content and not others.
This new social contract around digital rights can become the standard for real democracy, the “line” between different systems. In that sense Sakharov’s words are as true as ever: “I think that a great deal depends on this struggle—trust between the people, trust in high promises and the final result—international security.”