‘Second class: That’s how tech platforms treat citizens of the Global South’

Nina Santos is an expert and researcher on disinformation, hate speech and artificial intelligence. Based in Brazil, she approaches the debate from the perspective of the countries of the region

Nina Santos
Nina Santos, director of Aláfia Lab and coordinator of Desinformante, gives a conference in Salvador de Bahía (Brazil).Renato Ríos
Catalina Oquendo

If there is one issue that is considered global today, it is the impact of online disinformation, hate speech and artificial intelligence. The United Nations, which has expressed great concern about what it called an “existential threat,” recently released a framework for coordinated international action to confront these issues. “Threats to information integrity are not new, but they are proliferating and expanding with unprecedented speed on digital platforms, supercharged by AI technologies,” U.N. General Secretary António Guterres said at the end of June.

However, in Salvador de Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, a woman is leading that same fight but from the perspective of the countries in the Global South and points out the inequalities in this public debate. Nina Santos is the director of Aláfia Lab and coordinator of Desinformante, a research laboratory on the impact of the digital world, online racism and disinformation. “The platforms are treating us citizens of the Global South as second-class citizens. We cannot accept that,” says Santos, whose job, she clarifies, is not fact-checking. “We do not want to face each piece of disinformation one by one, we believe that it must be done en bloc, as a structural problem.”

Question. What are the causes of the inequality and second-class treatment you speak of?

Answer. The first problem is that when we talk about social media, artificial intelligence, in general, they are technologies that are made in the United States, and now also in China. And these technologies are not neutral, they bring with them a vision of the world, a way of imagining social relations, the future and democracy. So, the rules of what is valid or not valid in public debate in countries like Brazil, or any other in Latin America and Africa, for example, are set — not by the societies of these countries — but by the platforms that dictate privately what can be done in online conversations, which are today completely central to all social processes.

Q. Including political processes…

A. We talk about political processes, elections, decision-making, but the truth is that these platforms are central to our relationships with friends and family, they determine the way we sell and buy. [In the Global South] not only do we not have our own platforms, but we are also not disputing how to build the current ones. A second step, as a consequence of this, is that these companies are fighting very strongly against local regulations [such as the proposed regulations in Brazil]. The only region that has managed to do this in a more structural way so far is the European Union.

Q. How does the advance of AI make this phenomenon more complex?

A. AI must be seen as a phenomenon closely integrated into social media platforms. Much of the impact that AI can have on society is related to how this content will circulate on social networks or in messaging applications. We are living in a very complex time because AI technologies are very close to reality and widen the possibility of falsifying content. It is more than urgent to have national or transnational regulations for the use of these technologies, and I do not believe that they should be looked at only from the negative side.

Q. How does the lack of regulation in countries in the Global South deepen inequality?

A. Not having regulations is very bad, but it is even worse when Europe has regulation and Latin America does not, because the platforms decide to obey European legislation but do not promote the same rights in other parts of the world. An example is data access policies. Two years ago, we had much more access to data in Latin America than we do now.

Q. Brazil tried to regulate these platforms, why did it fail?

A. There was a strong effort, even with the support of the executive and part of the legislature, but the digital platform lobby was able to limit it. What happened in Brazil showed us that we need social support, we need to make the discussion visible. People are clear that we need regulations, but it’s another thing getting them to to mobilize to support this process.

Q. The case of Brazil also shows the role of platforms in political processes.

A. We often talk about how conversations on platforms bring disinformation, hate speech, and can provide more visibility for the political field of the extreme right, compared to the left. But in addition to the conversations on platforms, the fact of having and owning a platform also makes these people political actors. What we saw a few months ago when Elon Musk said that he would not respect a decision of the Brazilian Supreme Court is clear proof of this.

Asalto al Gobierno de Brasil
Followers of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro sit in front of police after storming the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, on January 8, 2023. Eraldo Peres (AP)

Q. And what can be done to limit the role that platforms play?

A. The solution is not to return to what we had before, but to find another way to live in the digital society. That is the great transformation we have ahead of us. Today, the digital world is part of our life. We are always with a cell phone that has social media, that even has artificial intelligence, because often we think of AI as a content creation technology, as deepfakes, and it is all that, but it is also a technology for content recommendation and filtering processes. Today it is more complex because it is much more integrated into our daily lives; but, on the other hand, with all this integration, we also have a greater interest and knowledge about what happens online.

Q. How should we use that interest?

A. With all this greater knowledge, we can now think: what do we want from a democracy in the digital age? I think that is the big question that we have to answer and work to build because we remain locked in this discussion about what we have today. Yes, we have to discuss regulation, self-regulation, co-regulation, but we also have to think beyond that and see what we can propose as a democratic society in the digital age.

Q. Can you think of any example that is considered a digital democracy?

A. I don’t see anything very structured. That is why there is a need to build an information agenda from the south, from our reality, precisely now that the idea of information integrity is a hot topic. This is a new term that was created, evidently from the United States and Europe, and which is being widely used by international organizations. The U.N. has just published the global principles for information integrity that will be discussed at the Summit of the Future, in September, in New York.

Q. How are the countries of the Global South approaching the discussion about principles for information integrity?

A. Again, the problem is that these principles and the idea of information integrity are conceived from a social reality that is not ours, they are not social realities of countries that were colonized, that had enslaved people, that have enormous social inequality, they are recent democracies, sometimes stable.

Q. Who is leading that agenda outside the United States and Europe?

A. Everything is very fragmented and there are different leaderships. However, Brazil now has the presidency of the G20 and is proposing the information integrity agenda to the rest of the countries. It then plays a role in putting these issues of information integrity, of combating disinformation, hate speech, and online conspiracy theories in different international discussion circles. But I also see that Mexico has many discussions about the relationships between the digital world and protecting vulnerable or historically vulnerable groups, such as women and indigenous groups. Argentina, for now, with the recent elections, is not at a moment of building alternatives, but rather of discussion. And if we talk about Africa, we see experiences like Kenya, where they are proceeding against technology companies for promoting harmful speeches during elections; which is also happening in India. There are examples, the problem is that we still do not have an integration that would give us the strength to face this discourse coming from the northern countries.

Q. You study the digital environment of blogs. Do you think that misinformation and hate speech are worse today?

A. Often, when we look at the situation, we are tempted to think that it was much better before, but in my view that is not true. In Brazil, for example, in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a very strong fight for the democratization of the media, a process of denouncing that they were and still are highly concentrated in a few families, and not very diverse in terms of gender, race and political position. In other words, we also had a very complicated communication situation. We cannot think that, if Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok simply ended, we would be much better off today, because it is not true.

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