Digital Persecution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 21st April 2022.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 4:35 pm, 21st April 2022

I thank my hon. Friend for that point and for his active engagement with the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. It is heart-warming to note, particularly following the publication of the Truro review slightly more than two and a half years ago, how increasingly Government are engaging on this issue, and not just expressing concern, but taking practical steps.

Let us look at a country other than China for a moment. Dr Daniel Aguirre of the University of Roehampton has explored the role of technologies in conflict and spoken about how in Myanmar, formerly Burma, the junta’s primary aim in the recent coup was to close or control digital communication, especially Facebook as the primary mode of internet communication for coup resistance. He has also detailed how the junta used misinformation to fuel ethnic tensions and violence.

We hear from other sources that the military in Myanmar has used Facebook to spread propaganda against Muslims and the Rohingya ethnic minority and to justify attacks against their communities, and that disinformation has been used to discredit or malign Christians, rouse people’s anger against them, or force people to practise rituals against their beliefs. During the covid-19 pandemic, stories of religious minorities being the harbinger of the coronavirus were spread. In Myanmar, news of Christians directly receiving foreign aid was falsely perpetuated, encouraging the view that they should not receive Government aid.

I referred previously to non-state actors—organisations other than Governments— misusing technology. An example is Daesh, the Islamic State terrorist organisation. It has used technology to recruit members and spread propaganda among minorities—in Iraq, for example, against the Yazidis, and in Africa to inflame and justify violence against communities there. It is deeply concerning that young people in particular can be attracted into terrorist groups in that way.

A statement on “Use of Technology and Religious Freedom” made at the July 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom—a precursor to the 2022 conference, which the UK is hosting this July—said that we need to

“take seriously the need to counter the ability of terrorists to recruit and radicalise or inspire others to violence online while fully respecting freedom of expression.”

Three years on, as the UK hosts this year’s Ministerial on Freedom of Religion or Belief, responding to this challenge remains at a concerning initial stage.

Why is this? One reason is that the very complexity of the technicalities that I have endeavoured to describe has often inhibited human rights activists, including those who campaign on freedom of religion or belief—and I include myself in this—from tackling this subject. But we must do so because the implications of failing to do that are and, indeed, already have been, catastrophic.

As Professor Francis Davis says,

“digital persecution is a challenge to the FORB community specifically and the wider human rights community because it requires them to speak together and find a common language to engage with the new institutions of persecution…this…needs new analysis and new strategies of response.”

Professor Davis adds that we need to develop new leaders who are both digitally native and freedom of religion or belief and human rights-savvy, representing a generational shift and meriting strategic investment by Government, foundations and tech companies’ corporate citizenship funds.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)