Technology is being 'weaponised' to persecute religious minorities - Open Doors

Surveillance footage of Uyghur people being held in Chinese 're-education' camp.(Photo: Open Doors)

Religious minorities face being consigned to an "Orwellian existence" amid rising cyber persecution, Open Doors has warned.

The charity, which supports persecuted Christians, says in a new report that millions around the world will suffer if democratic governments do not act now. 

The report has been published as government and faith representatives from around the world prepare to meet in London for the UK government's two-day ministerial on religious freedom this week.

The Open Doors report, which will be presented at the ministerial, singles out China as a country where cyber persecution has accelerated in recent years. 

There, it is being used against the Uyghur minority in particular.

"The haunting example of Xinjiang demonstrates the potential for the specialised automation of religious persecution," writes Sam Brownback, former US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, in the foreword to the report. 

"The Chinese Communist Party has turned an entire region into a laboratory in which to hone the most efficient means of technological oppression.

"The Uyghurs there have effectively become a marketing tool to sell these technologies all over the world: a beta test for a virtual police state.

"This report demonstrates that without a clear and concerted response, Chinese surveillance technology will be exported across the world, advancing the cause of digital authoritarianism and censorship." 

The report describes how CCTV, data harvesting, spyware and the monitoring of social media are being used by states to keep religious minorities under surveillance. 

This in turn has led to censorship, with websites, communications and online posts blocked, and people punished or cancelled for visiting certain websites. 

"In time, censorship alters the views of the population," the report reads.

"In China, the Chinese Communist Party is becoming increasingly successful at indoctrinating a young generation of internet and social media users simply by shutting out unfiltered news and feeding in ideological content, often with a strong nationalistic tone."

Open Doors says it is becoming increasingly difficult in China to buy Christian materials online and Christian Bible apps have been removed from online app stores in China, including the Google and Apple app stores.

While China has been an "early adopter" of this technology, it is spreading across Africa and India. 

In persecution hotspots around the world, social media has been used to spread disinformation and fake news about religious minority communities, resulting in them being "demonised" in order "to instigate violence or legitimise oppression". 

"This has been key in whipping up mob violence against Christian and Muslim minorities in several states across India, for example," Open Doors said.

In another example in Myanmar, accusations circulated online of Christians being responsible for bringing Covid-19 into the country.

Dr David Landrum, Director of Advocacy and Media at Open Doors UK and Ireland, said: "We watch on as mobs and terror groups around the world are making use of digital platforms to tighten their grip over religious minorities.

"Most shocking of all, governments are turning a blind eye to this or even actively encouraging the violent oppressive behaviour."

The report calls on the UK government to recognise digital persecution and address the phenomenon as a matter of urgency. 

In other recommendations, digital technology companies are asked to resist demands from authoritarian regimes to censor their services. 

The report recommends that an international standard be set around the development and export of surveillance technology so that religious minority rights are protected. 

Social media platforms are called upon to counter disinformation and remove incitements to hatred against religious minorities.

"It's vital that governments and tech companies grasp the gravity of the situation," added Dr Landrum.

"All forms of digital persecution are growing at frightening pace and leaving the potential enforcers far behind in their wake.

"In the words of two Colombian academics: 'Defeating digital persecution in the Global South today would save four billion people from serious hardship tomorrow.'"