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Government Accountability Explains Differing Pandemic Responses

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Screenshot of Doussouba Konaté, monitoring officer for Mali at the Accountability Lab

July 1, 2020 — The coronavirus health crisis has brought about deep challenges related to misinformation, governance and trust.

In a webinar sponsored by the Center for Strategic International Studies on Wednesday, Accountability Lab panelists on the ground in South Africa, Mali and Nepal detailed how the pandemic is affecting government accountability and corruption.

The Accountability Lab is a non-profit international project, which works to engage citizens in conversations surrounding civil service in nine countries.

Citizens, civil society groups and public sector reformers across several countries are finding creative ways to rebuild trusted communication between states and their people, in the absence of effective national pandemic responses.

“Identifying people who are pushing for change and equipping them with skills, knowledge and resources is how we see systematic change occurring,” said Cheri-Leigh Erasmus, global director of learning at the Accountability Lab.

“Currently, our main objective is to get accurate and validated information out there during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Erasmus said.

In Mali, government instability and citizen unrest was prevalent before the pandemic, which led to increased mistrust when the pandemic hit the country.

“Mali has been going through a multi-dimensional crisis,” said Doussouba Konaté, monitoring officer for Mali at the Accountability Lab.

Malians were facing an economic and governmental crisis even before grappling with the health and misinformation crisis brought about by the pandemic, she said.

“The weakness of the country is obvious,” Konaté added. “There is a lack of trust between the people and the leader.”

Malian people have considered the country’s leader unfit since a 2012 coup d’état, she said.

A distrust of government has led to a general disbelief in the pandemic itself in Mali.

“People don’t believe the information because it’s coming from the government,” said Konaté.

On top of a general distrust in government, vast amounts of disinformation about the virus have been disseminated on WhatsApp, which is widely used as a communications platform by Malians.

The Malian government implemented a curfew from 9 PM to 5 AM on March 26, which quickly ended on May 8 after uprisings protesting both the curfew and the results of the parliamentary election.

The government has taken some socioeconomic measures to reduce utility bills, but people are still struggling to feed their families, panelists said.

The country is easing restrictions and lessening aid, even as cases continue to rise.

Other nations transitioned into lockdown with more ease due to stronger civic environments prior to the pandemic.

Nepal had a comparatively smooth transition in dealing with the pandemic’s impacts, according to Narayan Adhikari, the Nepal director at the Accountability Lab.

The country closed its border to China on January 28, following its first case being reported on January 23, which was an individual traveling from Wuhan.

Nepal has also taken efforts to curb misinformation about the disease within its borders.

On March 21, a 20-year-old man was arrested on charges of spreading misinformation online through an unregistered fake news website, stirring public fear.

After three months in quarantine, the country has reopened, with a relatively low death rate of approximately 14,000, Adhikari reported.

The Accountability Lab aims to utilize a combination of traditional and new media, trusted by local communities, to get accurate information to those who need it.

No shortage of measures has been taken to reach audiences during the pandemic.

In Nepal, a hotline was created so individuals could easily call in with questions and get the facts that they needed.

In Liberia, employees of the lab created rap songs containing important information, which are disseminated on local radio stations and highly popular among children.

“What should civil service look like?” Erasmus asked. “And how do we get individuals active in conversations about civil service?”

“Good governance is hard, but worth investing in,” she said. “All citizens must do their part.”

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

International

Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet

Social media platforms are harming Iran due to their ignorance of Iranian culture and the nation’s primary dialects.

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Photo of Mahsa Alimardani, Iran program officer for Article19, from March 2018 by ITU Pictures

WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A lack of cultural understanding by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms is a prevailing reason for inaccurate content moderation in Iran, Middle East experts said.

Moreover, and they said, Iran’s proposed international internet replacement, the National Information Network, is dangerously close to coming into effect.

Speaking at a Thursday event of the Atlantic Council designed to draw attention to the current status of social media in Iran, a human rights expert said that Big Tech’s chronic misunderstanding of the Persian language leads to censorship of content that is either entertainment-based or posted by Iranian activists.

Panelists at the event also highlighted a new report “Iranians on #SocialMedia,” as the inspiration for the discussion.

Facebook “needs someone who actually understands what is going on on the ground,” claimed Simin Kargar, a human rights and technology research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab. Because the company don’t employ or contract with such people, said Kargar, the platform and its sister Instagram are inappropriately censoring posts in the country.

Because of the platforms’ negligence in understanding and adapting to local concerns, the Iranian people are not benefiting from the internet.

And – because Iran also heavily monitoring and censoring the internet within its borders, the Iranian people end up being hindered by the double-whammy of Iranian and Facebook censorship, Kargar said.

Iranian censorship and Facebook censorship

Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the human rights organization Article19, agreed that misconceptions due to language are a dangerous foe. She made this comment when asked what America can do to help and whether American sanctions have played play a part in the rise in content moderation.

All panelists at the event said that while American sanctions against Iran impact the internet in the country, they are not responsible for what is currently happening in Iran.

However, Alimardani also blamed Meta, the new corporate name for the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, for improper and excessive content moderation.

She said Facebook currently flag anything related to the Iranian guard after the Trump Administration created a list of dangerous people that should be restricted on social media. She disagreed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.

Is the National Information Network a new model for authoritarian regimes?

The National Information Network, the new censored internet that Iran is currently working to implement, had been planned to launch in March. Alimardani said she believes that the release will be postponed because of disagreements about who within the government will control content moderation, and the impact the firewall could have on Iranian tech companies.

Alimardani highlighted the unique nature of the Iranian law that created the national internet. Instead of being voted on by the Iranian Parliament, the legislative body deferred action on the creation of a permanent national internet only until after an experimental period with the firewall, she said.

Yet the government has been pushing its own online streaming and video platforms. These platforms are part of the government’s attempt to incentivize an Iranian national “internet.”

Throwing cheap broadband into a censored internet to sweeten the pot?

Essentially, said Kargar, the government is promising more bandwidth at a lower cost through the National Information Network. The new network is also appealing to Iranian consumers because the NIN will primarily be in the country’s major dialect.

Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia”, also spoke on the NIN. She said it would take Iran back to the Middle Ages, and also limit communication with other Iranians and with the outside world.

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Cybersecurity

Biden On Lookout for Cyberattacks with Russia Massing on Border of Ukraine

The president says that, in the past, Russia has taken covert military actions.

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Photo of President Joe Biden on Thursday

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – President Joe Biden said Thursday that the administration will be on the lookout for Russian cyberattacks in Ukraine as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be edging closer to invading Ukrainian territory.

Biden warned that, in the past, Russia has launched aggressive computer attacks that, while perhaps falling short of overt military action, have been daunting cyber-offensives of “military” officials not wearing Russian uniforms.

The comments came at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting of Biden’s Infrastructure Implementation Task Force. Biden briefly addressed rising tensions surrounding Ukraine.

Many critics of Russia, including Biden, have said that they Putin will pounce.

During his remarks, Biden said Moscow would “pay a heavy price” should it move any Russian troops across the Ukrainian border.

Following his foreign policy comments, Biden turned his attention to the planned task force talks on implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed on November 15, 2022.

He turned to former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the administration’s unofficial “infrastructure czar,” to offer comments on the administration’s progress to press.

Biden specifically addressed the law’s implications for ongoing supply chain issues.

Since the back half of 2021, the world has faced historic shipping delays on a variety of commercial goods as global manufacturing systems continue struggling to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and workforce shortages exacerbated by it.

Specifically, the tech industry has faced chronic shortages of semiconductor chips, perhaps worse than most other commodities. The shortages have crippled many digital industry supply chains. products.

Biden said that with the infrastructure law investment in physical infrastructure, including additional highways to alleviate traffic on the nation’s roads, will allow goods to be transported faster through existing supply chains.

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International

Global Collaboration Important for Long-term Resolution on Supply Chain Concerns

America and Europe are working together to address supply chain concerns.

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Lise Fuhr (top left), Jonathan Spalter (top right), Ruth Berry (bottom left), Thibaut Kleiner (bottom right)

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2022 – American and European leaders discussed Wednesday how they were working to build closer partnerships with global players to reduce the impact of supply chain issues that have constricted supply of consumer and business items and have contributed to inflation scares.

A mix of federal aid, low interest rates and coronavirus-induced supply chain problems have led to a reported seven percent increase in the price of goods in December compared to the previous December.

Jonathan Spalter, CEO of broadband association USTelecom, the White House National Security Council’s Director for Digital Technology Policy and International Economics Ruth Berry, and the European Commission’s Thibaut Kleiner noted Wednesday that they were working together on a long-term resolution to supply chain concerns, including increasing funding and coordination between their governments and coordinating with non-government stakeholders to exchange ideas.

Berry, Spalter, and Kleiner agreed that there is a major issue with the supply chain with respect to things including chips, fiber optic cable and circuit boards. According to Berry, this issue is key to the Biden administration and they are making investments, expanding domestic production, and partnering with other entities to resolve this issue.

Berry focused on the idea that the views of stakeholders should be prioritized. She said there is value in the exchange of ideas and in considering the views of people across the industry, with Spalter and Kleiner agreeing.

Kleiner said the European Commission is speaking with America, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea to find like-minded ways to address this issue. One of the contributing problems is that chips and other materials are designed in the European Union and in the United States, but are produced in Asia, making the industry dependent on Asian production, said Kleiner.

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