Our predictions for the internet in 2024 – The year of elections

This year is democracy’s biggest test in history. Beginning with Bangladesh on January 7, national elections are being held in at least 64 countries (and the EU) this year, affecting more than 4 billion people. With so many governments poised for change, this year could go down as a global watershed moment.

Further complicating matters is that many of these elections will be held in countries that have histories of censorship and election interference. To return to the example of Bangladesh, the main opposition party boycotted the election for being unfair, and there was a systematic disinformation campaign(new window) (paywall) powered by AI in the run-up.

This is just one example of the issues the largest mobilization of voters in history will face. In its latest report(new window), the World Economic Forum called AI-driven disinformation “the biggest short-term threat to the global economy” — and it has already featured heavily in Bangladesh’s election and Taiwan’s(new window), where it was used to generate fake news videos with realistic sounding voiceovers, including a bogus biography of the sitting president.

This demonstrates how central a role the internet will play in this year’s elections. Given the importance of the internet — and the importance of all the elections this year — we wanted to share our seven predictions for what you can expect.

1. Increased targeted censorship 

The internet has grown markedly less free over the past year. Russia(new window)’s online censorship increased dramatically during its invasion of Ukraine and China spread the Great Firewall to Hong Kong(new window).

These developments alone would have made censorship more prevalent in 2023, but we’ve already seen more governments worldwide, including nominal democracies, seize censorship power. The Sri Lankan parliament(new window) recently passed a law that critics allege will enable the government to stifle dissent and debate ahead of elections. 

These selective blocks typically target social media, messaging apps(new window), and critical news sites(new window). We would expect such censorship to be short in duration and most prevalent during the run-up to the election.

2. VPN bans

VPNs are one of the most effective tools at bypassing targeted censorship, turning them into targets for bans themselves. Last year continued our long-standing trend of seeing massive spikes in Proton VPN usage approaching contentious elections. 

This is why the Russian government has decided to ban all VPNs(new window), but again, weak democracies are engaging in VPN blocks as well. The Erdogan regime in Turkey tried to block the 16 most popular VPNs(new window), including Proton VPN, to ensure no one can access independent news outlets ahead of local elections in March. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Turkish authorities have resorted to internet censorship. Last year, we saw a huge rise in Turkish VPN use in February following blocks to Twitter, and in May around the time of the election. Now, it looks as if the government is going further by targeting VPNs themselves. If the blocks have not been entirely effective thanks to our anti-censorship technologies like Alternative routing or Stealth protocol, we expect more VPN bans in countries where the democratic process has weakened. 

3. More internet shutdowns

Internet shutdowns are the most extreme form of internet censorship, where the entire internet is essentially turned off for the entire population. Unfortunately, despite being incredibly costly(new window), internet shutdowns are relatively common. There were 80 internet shutdowns(new window) in the first five months of 2023 alone.

Shutdowns typically happen when a government is facing a crisis, like a natural disaster(new window), a civil war(new window), or an election it might lose(new window). Considering several governments with a history of blocking the internet are having elections this year, including Algeria(new window), Iraq(new window), India(new window), and Pakistan(new window), 2024 could easily set a new record for internet shutdowns. We already saw this take place in Senegal(new window) this February.

4. Disinformation campaigns

Misinformation, disinformation, fake news, all of it has been a problem for democracy(new window) for as long as there’s been a free, independent press. What has changed is the speed, volume, and deceptiveness that AI provides to modern-day propagandists.

Deepfakes are becoming more and more convincing in audio(new window), image(new window), and video(new window) formats, and they’re being used by fraudsters(new window) and official campaigns(new window) alike. Not only are deepfakes effective, they’re cheaper than ever to make, and with social media, it’s easier and faster to disseminate them widely before anyone discovers they’re counterfeits.

Governments and companies alike are aware of the threat. YouTube is labeling videos made using AI(new window), OpenAI won’t let its platform be used(new window) for political campaigns, the EU has already implemented some AI regulations(new window), and the US government is considering new legislation to manage the risks posed by AI(new window)

Unfortunately, regulation is always playing catch up with technology. Last year’s election in Slovakia provided a preview of the difficulties governments and the media will face, as crude deepfakes were difficult to disprove(new window) and were never removed from Meta. 

Unfortunately, this issue doesn’t have a single solution. It will require better AI regulation, improved public education on media literacy, and increased access to trustworthy, independent media. Until then, people need to prepare for — and correctly identify — unbelievable audio, images, and videos. 

5. Foreign influencers

The most famous example of this was in the 2016 US election when Russian agents working at the Internet Research Agency(new window) created thousands of fake accounts on all the major social media platforms and used them to sow chaos, post pro-Trump content, and generally discourage Democratic voter turnout. 

Perhaps after seeing the effect Russia had on the US political system for a relatively small investment, the Chinese government has aggressively adopted the strategy(new window). Meta and cybersecurity experts discovered a massive network of fake accounts, dubbed “Spamouflage(new window)”, operating under the direction of the Chinese government that was harassing foreign politicians and businesses. 

While Google, Meta, and X/Twitter all shut down thousands of accounts affiliated with Spamouflage, there’s no guarantee they got them all. And, it’s relatively easy for these bad actors to build their network back up. Plus, China has come up with a new strategy of recruiting influencers(new window) to parrot its talking points by offering them access to China’s internet. 

Spamouflage targeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau(new window) with attacks at the end of last year. Given there are national elections in the US and several of China and Russia’s key neighbors, including Finland, Georgia, Indonesia, Lithuania, Moldova, and South Korea, it seems likely that we’ll see many of these campaigns pop up in the coming year. 

6. Increased surveillance

The internet is already awash in all kinds of companies trying to monitor you, from Meta to Google, and governments are just as thirsty for data. While the mass surveillance apparatus exposed by Edward Snowden was largely shut down, attempts to close the Section 702 loophole(new window) faltered at the end of last year(new window). And many of these governments can simply buy information on their citizens(new window) or rely on private businesses to share information(new window) with them. In fact, Apple was sharing information without requiring a warrant(new window) until just last year.

This rampant surveillance makes end-to-end encrypted services all the more important as they are the only way to remove your information from the constant silent gaze of these companies and governments. 

7. Rise of the “splinternet”

We arguably already have a splinternet, as China, Iran, and North Korea have all taken draconian steps to limit access to foreign websites, but this coming year, the internet could become even more fractured and the cleavages even deeper. 

The reason governments do this is to maintain a permanent level of control over what information their citizens can access. If authoritarian governments want to censor critical news for long periods of time, they must block access to foreign websites where these censorship orders don’t exist. This can make it incredibly difficult for people to recognize disinformation. 

China is a splinternet pioneer and has been consolidating its power over its internet for years. The Chinese Communist Party has even forced government agencies to replace foreign PCs with domestic ones(new window), and its technological rivalry with the US over chip manufacturing(new window) has heightened tensions, again demonstrating how fundamental tech policy has become to governments worldwide.

Russia has also experimented with creating its own national internet, slowly untangling its infrastructure(new window) from that of the larger web. Still, it has a long way to go before it can achieve China’s level of control, much less complete isolation.

Other countries have taken similar steps, if to a lesser degree. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Myanmar have all limited their citizens’ ability to access foreign websites or share dissent.

As governments become more authoritarian, the incentives to maintain an open, free internet begin to be outweighed by the autocratic desire to repress critical voices. It’s often only strong, vibrant, liberal democracies where the freedom of speech is most secure.

Democracy is on the ballot

More people than ever will vote in a national election this year, yet in many of these countries, the very foundations of democracy are under attack. Authoritarian forces generally attempt to flood the internet with false information and block access to trustworthy news sources. This makes it impossible for people to discern what’s actually happening and undermines trust in the legitimacy of institutions, processes, and elections. And if people think an election is illegitimate or that their actions won’t make a difference, they won’t go to the polls. 

We must fight disinformation and censorship in all its forms if we’re to preserve our democracy. Freedom of speech, freedom of information, the right to privacy — these essential human rights are vital to any functioning democracy. We must all work together to ensure these rights are defended and that our democracies continue to give us a voice in how our governments serve us.

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