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The West must do more to protect Uyghurs from China’s online harassment

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The recent testimony by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haughen revealed that Big Tech is failing to protect its users from malign actors. Uyghurs, long persecuted by China’s government, have proven to be especially vulnerable. 

In March 2021, some 500 Uyghur Facebook accounts were infected with malware embedded by Chinese government-adjacent hackers. While the company alerted the individuals affected, Haughen was quick to note in a Senate hearing that Facebook’s counterespionage team has been consistently understaffed, putting users at risk. Lack of disclosure has been another persistent problem in the industry. In 2015, former Microsoft employees revealed that the company had decided not to tell hackers’ targets, many of them Uyghurs, that their email accounts had been compromised.  

Twitter has been more proactive in pushing back against abuse of its platform. The social media giant recently listed some accounts as “foreign state actors” and permanently banned them from the website: In 2020, the company de-platformed 23,750 core accounts that generated content to be retweeted, as well as an additional 150,000 accounts run by bots and trolls. But much more remains to be done to ensure Uyghur safety online.  

In-house measures taken by tech companies to dismantle networks of malign actors and protect their users will make the online space safer for Uyghurs to use, but there is still a need for policy to protect Uyghurs and other vulnerable communities. While Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects tech companies from being sued, Congress could push for greater oversight of these companies and their activities — including mandatory reports to congressional committees on abuse and malign influence on their platforms. 

The unique threats to the Uyghur community are well documented. Since 2017, the Chinese government has been systematically eradicating their culture in the Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang, destroying mosques, sterilizing women and detaining millions in so-called reeducation centers. But this campaign isn’t limited to China’s borders. In fact, our research shows that China has embarked on a global campaign to silence this minority, with over 1,548 Uyghurs deported or detained at Beijing’s request. 

Moreover, our latest research shows that China has reached into the heart of liberal democracies using online tactics. In tandem with its domestic campaign of mass incarceration, the Chinese government and state-aligned proxies have used the internet to harass or intimidate Uyghur communities in 10 countries in a total of nearly 3,000 incidents — including the United States. Of the incidents recorded, over 50 percent are cyber attacks. 

The relatively low cost and efficiency of repression through cyberspace has had a devastating impact on human rights workers and organizations alike. The World Uyghur Congress, based in Germany, has been subject to cyber attacks for more than a decade, for example. Digital security staffers informed us that the costs of counteracting these persistent attacks creates budgetary constraints on already cash-strapped advocacy organizations, effectively pricing many of them out of their day-to-day operations. 

At the individual level, fear and anxiety permeate the Uyghur diaspora, adding to their collective trauma. Almost 96 percent of respondents to a recent survey we issued to 72 members of the Uyghur diaspora community felt that they faced unique digital threats, and almost 74 percent said they have experienced digital threats or surveillance personally. To challenge the Chinese government’s efforts to harass and intimidate Uyghurs living abroad, tech companies must monitor their digital platforms for abuse and intimidation, and the West must work to create a unified vision for digital rights and digital democratic governance. 

This unified vision should focus on protecting targets of state repression and violence. For example, governments could work to create an international convention on transnational repression, taking a clear stand against the practice globally. This — with accompanying state-level policies focusing on the protection of individuals’ digital rights to freedom of speech and expression and freedom from surveillance, intimidation and harassment — will better ensure the human security of Uyghurs and other vulnerable communities worldwide.

The Biden administration, which has sought to define itself by its commitment to human rights, must pay attention to the all-too-real threats and challenges Uyghurs living within its own borders face. Uyghurs are left to handle these challenges on their own. Home to tech companies and world leaders, the U.S. could make a positive impact on Uyghur lives. 

The ongoing repression in Xinjiang stands as a critical test case of President Biden’s resolve to protect at-risk communities worldwide. China’s digital authoritarianism must be challenged or we all lose.  

Natalie Hall is a researcher at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and former program coordinator at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her on Twitter @natalielhall94.

Bradley Jardine is a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States and director of research at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Jardine_bradley.

Tags Big tech Joe Biden online harassment Uyghur genocide Uyghurs Xinjiang

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