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Reviving MENA Regional Integration in the Post-COVID Era

Reviving MENA Regional Integration in the Post-COVID Era

The World Bank gives us the comprehensive Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Economic Update: It is about Trading Together — Reviving MENA Regional Integration in the Post-COVID Era.


The combination of a COVID-19 pandemic and a collapse in oil prices has affected all aspects of the economies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region’s economies are projected to contract by 5.2% in 2020, which is 4.1 percentage points below the forecast in April 2020, and 7.8 percentage points worse than that of October 2019, reflecting an increasingly pessimistic outlook for the regional economy. The region is expected to recover only partially in 2021.

The outlook for MENA’s current account and fiscal balances also deteriorated sharply. Driven largely by lower oil export revenue, a drop in fiscal revenue, and the large increase in fiscal expenditure required to respond to the health crisis, the region’s current account and fiscal balances in 2020 are forecast at -4.8% and -10.1% of GDP respectively, much worse than the forecasts in October 2019. Public debt is projected to rise significantly in the next few years, from about 45% of GDP in 2019 to 58% in 2022.

In dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the top priority is responding to the health crisis while aiming to preserve consumption and production capabilities. If financially feasible, countries should postpone fiscal consolidation until recovery is well underway. Reallocating spending to deal with the immediate impacts of the crisis and making such spending more efficient, for example, by proactively reducing leakages to ensure relief measures reach the intended beneficiaries can help create fiscal space. In the medium run, there is a strong need to boost productivity to restore growth and stabilize the debt. A powerful way to do that would be to pursue profound institutional reforms that would reshape the role of the state, promote fair competition, accelerate the adoption digital technology, and pursue regional integration, which is the focus of this report.

CHAPTER I: Coping with a Dual Shock in the Middle East and North Africa

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) face both a COVID-19 pandemic and a collapse in oil prices. Trade volumes are estimated to have fallen sharply. Preliminary data for April from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development suggests a roughly 40% decline in trade for the region. The downturn is expected to accelerate in sectors with strong value chains, particularly in electronics and automotive products.

CHAPTER II: Reviving Middle East and North Africa Regional Trade Integration in the Post-COVID-19 Era

Trade openness can be significant in achieving inclusiveness. However, to promote growth that benefits all segments of society, trade reforms must move in parallel with other policy reforms. The benefits of trade openness might otherwise be canceled by other economic and social measures. The contributions of trade openness to inclusive growth can be uneven and cannot be understood without considering how it affects all factors of production, benefiting some and hurting others.



Download the report in : English  عربي  français
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Countries Must End Harmful Allegiance to Paris Agreement

Countries Must End Harmful Allegiance to Paris Agreement

Why Prolong the Pain? Countries Must End Harmful Allegiance to Paris Agreement suggests a Guest post by Vijay Jayaraj, Guest Blogger / on October 17, 2020, before adding that Countries across the globe are at a crossroads. They must choose between competing energy sources because Global Warming could cause a Global Economic Collapse.


On the one hand, there are fossil fuels, the long-proven, relatively simple technologies of which provide abundant, affordable, reliable, instant-on-demand conventional energy. Indeed, they provide over 80 percent of all energy used in the world today.

On the other hand, there are “renewable energy sources.” Don’t think of the old reliable ones like hydro, wood, and dung, but of what Bjørn Lomborg, in his new book False Alarm, calls “new renewables,” mainly wind turbines and solar panels. Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar are diffuse, providing less energy per area of land, and intermittent. Consequently, they are less abundant, more expensive, unreliable, and—when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine—often completely unavailable.

Countries don’t face this decision by choice.

The United Nations’ (UN) collective decision, under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, to wage war on fossil fuels required a draconian energy policy. First it tried the Kyoto Protocol—under which almost no nation lived up to its commitments. Ironically, the United States, which never ratified it, had the world’s best record at reducing greenhouse gas emissions during the period Kyoto covered.

With the Kyoto Protocol’s expiration in 2012, the UN needed a replacement. It came up with the Paris Agreement in 2015. Over 190 nations had signed on by early 2016, and by 2019 nearly every nation had ratified and submitted its plans for greenhouse gas reductions.

But before then, the Paris Agreement lost its biggest cash cow. United States President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that his nation would withdraw from the agreement. By the terms of the Agreement, the withdrawal becomes effective November 4, 2020—a day after America’s next Presidential election, but two-and-a-half months before the winner is inaugurated.

The key element of the Agreement is for member states to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, which come mainly from fossil fuel use. Countries submitted individual deadlines to the Agreement and were expected to achieve those goals.

But almost all major European member states have failed to meet their emission reduction deadlines, and they remain unaccountable. Even economic powerhouses like Germany and France, both of which championed the treaty, continue to lag behind their emission reduction targets.

Moreover, advanced member states such as Japan and Australia have shown no restraints towards fossil fuels. The US has been on a fossil-fuel spree, emerging with a superior energy sector that is less dependent on oil from the Middle East.

Developing countries are in a difficult position economically. Some of their GDPs are much smaller than the European giants, all have GDP per capita below the developed countries, and poverty in them is widespread and often severe.

Developing countries understandably are reluctant to suppress their own growth by depending on expensive, intermittent, unreliable wind and solar when developed nations don’t. Some of the developing nations have expressed this through their domestic policy decisions.

The two largest developing nations, India and China, with a combined 2.8 billion people, together are the highest users of coal in the world. They have defied international pressure to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Economists say that this continued reliance on fossil fuels and the “economic growth from expanded use of fossil fuels will add thousands of dollars of annual income to the poor in India.” Ditto in China.

Quite simply, fossil fuels lifted the West out of poverty over the last 170 years. Developing countries understandably see no reason why they shouldn’t have the same benefit. Freeing up the billions of dollars these developing countries currently spend on renewable technology would speed their conquest of poverty.

Developed countries that provide them this fund are not immune from “energy poverty” themselves. Energy poverty (also called “fuel poverty” and defined in the United Kingdom as when a household must spend over 10 percent of its income solely on home heating—jeopardizing its ability to provide adequate food and other necessities) exists even in the UK and US, where the vulnerable population experience serious morbidity and mortality from their inability to pay energy bills. 

In 2018, 2.40 million households in England were classified as fuel poor. Hundreds die each year in the English winter due to their inability to pay heating bills.

Reports indicate that energy poverty is a very real problem in the US, too. In 2015, “17 million households received an energy disconnect/delivery stop notice and 25 million households had to forgo food and medicine to pay energy bills.”

Developed countries must not fall into an imaginary abyss where they aggravate this widespread energy poverty. They, like the developing countries, must stop their investments in renewables and instead focus on making affordable energy.

Developing countries can begin by following the US example, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which not only mandates reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also forces them to spent billions for renewable installations that cannot provide the abundant, affordable, reliable energy indispensable to overcoming poverty.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

Choice – the Courageous Outrageous

Choice – the Courageous Outrageous

Michael Dwyer‘s Choice – the Courageous Outrageous Posted on , is about the difficult times that await us, humans in the future.

The human race is moving into very difficult times. We all know it but how to deal with the future is the question. We know climate change has started and it will increase in intensity. Australians remember the fear, pain and loss when 18 million hectares burnt in the summer of 2019 – 20. The west coast of the USA and Siberia are also suffering the same catastrophes. Bangladesh, China, India and states in Africa have suffered record flooding. The world temperature is rising. From an all-time high of 54.4°C in the USA’s Death Valley to an Antarctic temperature of 20°C recorded in January 2020, to the June temperature of 38°C inside the Arctic circle. We have the warmest temperatures now for the last 12,000 years.

Something needs to be done.

David Attenborough agrees. He said we have a manmade disaster on a global scale. When enough polar ice has melted, the fresh water added to the sea water will halt the ocean circulation streams. Then weather patterns will be lost as the fundamental rhythms supporting humanity disappear.

We can choose. We could do nothing and let Nature decide our future but Nature can be cruel indeed. Alternately we can make the transition to the future as painless as it is possible to make it. We can choose to accept the trajectory this planet is heading in; I didn’t say fix it, I said accept it. The dramatic changes happening will get worse so we either change the way we live and prepare for a new world or do nothing and let it annihilate every one of us.

Choice – the Courageous Outrageous
Figure1  Bushfires as a result of increasingly hot weather cause loss of biodiversity and decrease in our food supply

As the effects of climate change get worse, more land will become uninhabitable through drought, flood, fire and destructive storms. Desperate people will become refugees because to remain in their old countries means death, war or slow starvation. It has always been so, people have always moved to where the living is easier and the climate for growing food is good. Climate change refugees are already increasing. We, in our privileged first world rich countries will contend with uninvited refugees coming to live in our local neighbourhoods.

We have a number of issues we may choose to address. The first of these is a rising world consumer population. How many people are aware that a yearly increase of 2 percent means a mathematrical doubling of any population in a mere 35 years? Australia’s increase in 2019 was 1.2% (this means Australia’s Population will double in about 60 years.). World population is increasing annually by 1.1% per year (it will also double in about 60 years). And South Australia has a consumer population increase of .8% (doubling in about 90 years) contrary to so many who have been convinced that the state’s population is falling. This planet can’t handle today’s consumer population. And yet we are headed to double it in such a short time!

So many of us, particularly politicians and real estate developers, cheer the rising consumer population because it means jobs and wealth. But increasing consumption increases greenhouse gases which is changing the climate. Climate change is the big issue now. It’s not about who has a job and who can afford yet more consumer stuff, it’s about whether we can continue to live on this planet. If we choose to address climate change cleverly, there must be no increase or better still, a quick worldwide decline in the consumer population. I am assuming we still have the time to enact a fall in the consumer population growth but we may not have that luxury.

Let’s go back to the choice. Do we leave it to nature to make the calls or do we use our intellects to soften the blow? Instead of addressing the rising population we can address consumerism directly. (It is not the number of people that builds the climate change disaster, it is the greenhouse gases produced by the numbers TIMES the individual personal greenhouse gas productions of each of us). Consumerism requires an ever increasing input of raw materials; water, food, arable land, coal, oil and mined metals and minerals. And somewhere to dump the rubbish like the greenhouse gases. As David Attenborough and a thousand scientists say, we should choose to accept the reality that we are destroying this planet. And there is no planet B to migrate to.

Choice – the Courageous Outrageous
Figure2  Damage to Planet A. Economic growth requires increasing resource consumption

The 2020 Federal Government has put its hope in having a carbon neutral future by championing five technologies; clean hydrogen, energy storage, carbon capture and storage and soil carbon. With these it intends to maintain business as usual. In TV’s ‘Fight for Planet A’, Craig Reucassel suggests a more believable approach. We are able to live much more energy-frugal lives and avoid some greenhouse gas production. In one example in ‘Fight for Planet A’, he particularly notes that cows and sheep produce methane and do as much greenhouse gas damage as half our transport system. Like the Morrison Government, he argues we can still have our cake and eat it too, we can live as we are but be frugal about it. Both he and the Morrison government are wrong. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We will eventually lose the cake and a lot more besides, if we make a half-hearted attempt to live exactly as we do now but with minor tweaks.

Choice – the Courageous Outrageous
Figure3  Recycling is not enough. At best it suggests to the public something needs to be done

Choice. The first step is to convince the public of the gravity of the situation. Mass advertising will inform and persuade both the public and business leaders of the need for the radical changes to be implemented. Jobs and businesses will be lost in the re-adjustment of our culture and way of living and life will get difficult. Wealth and opulence will be gone forever but though we may live materially poorer lives, with care we can be happy living more meaningful lives with a real sustainable future ahead of us. We can plan what the next two thousand years might be like.

Choice – the Courageous Outrageous
Figure4  Our culture must change. The financial profit goal and growth philosophy is no longer fit for purpose

If we accept the reality of a fundamentally changed future there are so many ways to proceed. I mention two physically and technically possible approaches.

Rationing of greenhouse gases at the consumer level is a good approach. This brings it home to the individual, not government and not the businesses. Rationing at the consumer level will unleash the power, innovation and creativity of every individual.

Income tax and other taxes as well as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) will be abandoned. They will be replaced by a system of Greenhouse gas rationing. The total number of greenhouse gas tokens issued per year to a person will be defined according to a ten year decreasing budget which will address the problem.

All consumers are issued with some greenhouse gas tokens reflecting the amount of greenhouse gas production tolerated that year. These tokens are used on all transactions and are passed from business to business like the GST currently operating. The number annually issued will decrease in order to match the ongoing greenhouse gas budget.

No greenhouse gases can be produced without the correct number of tokens. For example, when oil is sold to a business at the oil well, that business must pay tokens (and money) to the product producer. Those tokens are then passed back by the oil driller to the greenhouse gas token ‘bank’ and will be totalled against the year’s greenhouse gas allocation.

Those who are frugal with their greenhouse gas tokens will have enough tokens to sell to those who are desperate for more. When a person or business runs out of greenhouse gas tokens, more may be purchased from the central body though the price will always be higher than the publicly traded greenhouse gas token price. Businesses can borrow from the central token body however, the borrowing will still be matched to future overall token issuing i.e. greenhouse gas future production.

This approach will ensure greenhouse gas production falls to zero and further, then proceeds to remove existing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere such that the climate stabilises.

To illustrate the effect of these climate change responses upon the consumer, a taxi driver will pay greenhouse gas tokens via his bank card as well as fuel at the bowser and will charge the token cost to the person who needs a taxi ride via bank card. The persuasion to avoid greenhouse gases are clear, the taxi must run on little or no fossil fuels and the consumer will avoid the use of taxis as much as possible.

All industries will be examined for their greenhouse gas production. Cutting down trees and clearing land is responsible for greenhouse gas production and is to be measured. Beef and lamb are also huge sources of greenhouse gases. Therefore they will attract a greenhouse gas token cost to be paid by the consumer. As the animal leaves the farm, the greenhouse gas token cost will be levied and passed onto the wholesaler at the abattoir. The transport greenhouse gas token cost and the abattoir token cost will also be added. Clearly, the industry will shrink.

Overseas goods will be much more expensive when compared to locally made goods because they need more transport. The entertainment industry will become much more local and it will often be within walking distance. As will sports. Education will go largely online enhanced with local gatherings of students for tutorials.

Governments too pay the greenhouse gas bank for its greenhouse gas tokens. One obvious candidate for government is carbon sequestration. A new natural technique is worthy of investment. Greenhouse gases can be sequestered using the seaweed kelp, because it lives on CO² and grows at a prodigious two feet per day absorbing huge amounts of CO². Trees on land are not as good because they can be cut or burnt thus releasing the CO².

Figure5  Government can develop kelp farms moored over seawater which is kilometres deep.

The facility will have two functions, foremost, kelp grows absorbing CO². When dead the kelp sinks to the ocean floor away from oxygen and remains there safely for hundreds of thousands of years. additionally the kelp farm will be a source of seafood and edible seagrasses.

Our whole economy is geared to the building industry and economic growth but this effort will no longer make sense. Jobs everywhere will disappear. But new jobs will arise when the mechanised harvesters and industrial food production systems go, huge amounts of physical labour will be necessary to plant, grow and distribute food. Crops too will change to avoid the new greenhouse gas cost of fertilisers, chemical sprays and energy.

Is such a change in the fundamentals of our culture possible? We have Nature to thank for showing us it is certainly possible by bringing us the coronavirus pandemic. This crisis proved we are capable of killing fundamental sacred cows of our culture. True happiness does not come from bank balances and ever higher levels of consumption. Happiness comes from relationships and meaningful lives. The ‘impossible’ shutting down of the world economy was carried out because the corona virus threat was big enough. Now we have an even greater threat.

There will be happy spinoffs to the painful adjustments. People will become much more healthy and lose weight as happened in Cuba when they lost their oil supply in 1990. We eat far too much red meat for our health and red meat will become a rarity. Plus food will become cleaner when the chemicals and flavour enhancers in our diet are no longer necessary in the locally grown food. People of this future will ride bicycles or walk as a normal part of their lives. The pace of life will be less frantic and people will be more relaxed.

Figure6   Riding and walking will be a natural part of everyone’s day-to-day life

Some transport will be necessary and will run on solar batteries but there is still a greenhouse cost to all manufacturing to be priced in. The internet however must remain with its support infrastructure. This will ensure the innovation, ideas and information on the how and why of the culture change disseminates to everyone.

Are we prepared for a future such as this? The change will shock us. Visiting a relative in another town will be nearly as difficult an operation as it was two hundred years ago. Large cities will become either difficult or deadly to live in so people will move back to the neglected small towns.

We must aim for harmony to help with the ‘catastrophic’ experience of the changing times. Climate change refugees in their millions must be looked after and settled well in their new lands. Otherwise there will be bloodshed as mistakes are made and resources become short. New local cultures with respect for every individual must be encouraged. War, aggressive and exploitive philosophies, like those espoused by trumpists, must be guarded against.

There will be problems and difficulties whether we choose to do nothing or choose to be pro-active. But we have the knowledge now to make life much easier than it was two hundred years ago before the use of fossil fuels. Though there are many questions and details to be worked out, life may well become more enjoyable than today because it will be more meaningful.

Michael Dwyer

MichaelDwyerWriter@gmail.com
The false promise of regime change

The false promise of regime change

DemDigest of October 13, 2020, published The false promise of regime change with respect to the countries of the MENA region. Last week, the New York Times reported Hopes Fade for New Political Course in Algeria a Year After Popular Uprising before quoting a leading figure in protests last year that ousted the country’s authoritarian ruler “We are moving backward fast.”

Credit: Council on Foreign Relations

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s repeated assertion around the time of the Iraq war that Washington’s pursuit of “stability at the expense of democracy” in the Middle East had produced neither was broadly true. But it turned out to have a corollary—that pursuing democracy at the expense of stability might also produce neither, but at even higher cost, notes Philip H. Gordon, Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

The more recent U.S. interventions in the Middle East have sought to replace autocratic regimes with democratic governments. But even if those actions had somehow avoided the pitfalls posed by security vacuums, popular resistance, and untrustworthy proxies, they would have been unlikely to shepherd in new democracies, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Arab Barometer

Although there are no clear recipes for democratic development, extensive scholarly research suggests that the main ingredients include a high degree of economic development; significant ethnic, political, and cultural homogeneity (or at least a shared national narrative); and the previous existence of democratic norms, practices, and institutions. Unfortunately, the states of the contemporary Middle East lack all these attributes. None of this means that democracy is impossible there or that promoting democracy should not be an American aspiration. But it does suggest that pursuing regime change in the Middle East with the hope that doing so will lead to democratic development is wishful thinking in the extreme.

The next time U.S. leaders propose intervening in the region to overthrow a hostile regime, it can safely be assumed that such an enterprise will be less successful, more costly, and more replete with unintended consequences than proponents realize or admit, Gordon concludes.

A significant majority of Arab citizens favor a democratic political system, with 76% in favor and only 17% opposed, according to the largest opinion poll of its kind released by The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). Some 74% of respondents believe a pluralist democratic system is appropriate for their countries. Yet, with almost 30,000 respondents across 13 Arab states and more than 900 researchers, the survey revealed division on the question if whether MENA societies are “prepared to practice” democracy.

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Qatar organizes International Hydrogen Energy workshop

Qatar organizes International Hydrogen Energy workshop

Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) of Qatar organizes International Hydrogen Energy workshop as reported by Gulf Times of Qatar as an attempt to not only inform on the country’s hydrogen energy opportunities but also to promote discussions regarding the nation’s strategy of its energy transition.

The picture above is of the Qatar Foundation Headquarters in Doha.


October 10, 2020

Qatar organizes International Hydrogen Energy workshop

Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) organized an international workshop entitled The Hydrogen Energy Opportunity for Qatar.


The two-day event sought to inform stakeholders on the countrys hydrogen energy opportunities, promote discussions regarding a national strategy, and facilitate international collaboration in the areas of policy, business and research, and saw the participation of over 50 delegates from eight countries including Qatar, Japan, Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Switzerland.


Organized in line with QEERIs mandate to support Qatar in tackling its grand challenges related to energy, water and the environment, the workshop brought together leading international experts and national stakeholders from the public, private, academic and industry sectors. The Hydrogen Energy Opportunity for Qatar also reflected the unprecedented attention currently being paid to hydrogen energy as well as global efforts to harness its full potential.


The Principal Economist at QEERI and chair of the workshop Dr. Marcello Contestabile, explained: “There is a growing international consensus that hydrogen has a key role to play in a deeply decarbonized energy system. Conversely, there is also a need for large investments and international cooperation to ensure that hydrogen technology is scaled up and rolled out, and for markets to be created for the end product.


“Qatar is already playing a global role in the energy transition as a major supplier of the cleanest fossil fuel and is taking assertive steps to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of the LNG it delivers through methane management and CCS. Hydrogen will allow the country to take this further and continue to profit from its endowment of natural gas in a low carbon world. To make the most of it, however, a joint approach at the national and international level is required.” he said.


He added: “The timeliness of the event is demonstrated by the very strong and enthusiastic response we received from international experts and national stakeholders alike. We provided a forum for the necessary conversations to begin and look forward to continuing to play our part supporting the development of a hydrogen ecosystem in Qatar.”


The Energy Technology Analyst in Hydrogen and Alternative Fuels at the International Energy Agency (IEA) Dr. Jose M Bermudez, said: “Hydrogen could play a key role in the energy transition, especially in hard to abate sectors where direct electrification will be challenging and sustainable biomass availability will not be able to meet energy demands. However, this will require to significantly expand hydrogen use and, at the same time, switch hydrogen production to low-carbon routes. This is not an easy endeavour and will require a lot of collaboration and coordination at all levels and, especially, at international level.”


He added: “The first step that countries should take is to develop their national hydrogen strategies that take into due consideration the evolution of the international landscape. Platforms like this workshop, bringing together local and international stakeholders, are ideal to stimulate the conversations and knowledge sharing that is required to develop strategies that will shape the role of hydrogen in a future clean energy system”


Highlighting the importance of such conversations among stakeholders, Dr. Marc Vermeersch said: “It is absolutely imperative that we combine forces and work collectively to achieve the targets set forth by the Qatar National Vision 2030. The Hydrogen Energy Opportunity for Qatar workshop provided a platform not just for knowledge sharing and learning global best practices, but also to discuss how each of us can contribute towards building a robust and efficient strategy for Qatar.”


QEERI is committed to assisting Qatar to diversify its energy mix, and focuses on sustainability research, development and innovation across its various centers including the Energy Center, Water Center, Environment and Sustainability Center, Corrosion Center and its Earth Sciences Program.

Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility

Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility

 William Becker writing this article titled ‘Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility’ could be taken as a pertinent illustrator of the sort of times related to dilemmas and traumas.  Democracy at best of times associates with higher human capital accumulation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom that are quasi-impossible to go for nowadays and before the advent of that smart techno hard and software. In any case, Can democracies survive social media?


Balancing freedom of expression with social responsibility

Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the most enduring statements in American history: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Unfortunately, nearly all Americans have been fooled by this. The first person to utter the statement was actually the showman P.T. Barnum.

Barnum didn’t know about the Internet or social media, of course. He’d be amazed at computers, and even more amazed that anyone could use it to send virtually any statement anywhere in the world, unfiltered and instantly. This extraordinary power allows us to fool millions of people in real time, but it also allows them to fool us. Unfortunately, there are individuals, organizations, and even nations that use social media for precisely that purpose.

The misuse of social media to spread disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies is raising questions in democracies about how free freedom of expression should be. Social media are caught constantly between freedom of speech and social responsibility in democracies around the world. “There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments,” the authors of the 2020 World Population Review report. “Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.”

Every country that guarantees freedom of expression already puts boundaries on it. In 2015, the Pew Research Center ranked the tolerance of free speech in 38 countries, scoring them between zero and eight, with eight being the most tolerant. No country earned a score higher than 5.73. That score was awarded to the United States. Pew reported that “Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They also are the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the Internet without government censorship.”

But the world’s most tolerant nation is struggling with an epidemic of misinformation, outright falsehoods, hate speech, conspiracy theories, and deliberate attempts by foreign and domestic groups to undermine democracy. Social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter are being challenged by Congress to find that balance between freedom of expression on the one hand, and serving as conduits of hate and harm on the other.

The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.” Yet, federal statutes prohibit speech that incites harm to others or distributes obscene materials, for example. The constraints other countries have put on free expression include libel, slander, perjury, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, the unauthorized use of copyrighted information, trade secrets, and speech that violates privacy, dignity, and public security. People in the European Union and Argentina are guaranteed the “right to be forgotten.”

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “the right to freedom of expression.” But it also sets boundaries against speech that damages the rights and reputations of others, jeopardizes national security, or threatens public order, health, or morals.

The Internet’s value

Another of America’s historic leaders, Thomas Jefferson, has been quoted, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, every American is responsible to be informed.” Ensuring that citizens are well informed is one of the Internet’s most important potentials. How close is it to fulfilling its potential?

The Pew Center for Research asked that question last July in the United States. It studied where Americans get their information and how their sources enhance their knowledge. Pew found that about one in five adults relies on social media for news and information, but 57% of them scored low when asked nine “knowledge questions.” Other researchers found a similar result for television news, probably because some of the most prominent news sources are biased in the United States.

Here is how it happened. Before cable television arrived, there were three dominant TV networks in the U.S. — ABC, CBS, and NBC. Because they used public airways to broadcast content, the federal government felt they had an obligation to public service. Each network had to obtain a broadcast license. In 1949, the federal agency in charge of licensing instituted the “Fairness Doctrine.” It required the networks to present both sides of controversial issues of public importance. Broadcasts had to be “honest, equitable, and balanced.”

Things changed when cable television came along. Cable stations didn’t use public airways. As their numbers grew, viewers could find both sides of controversial issues by channel surfing, if they took the trouble. The Fairness Doctrine fell into disuse and eventually was discontinued. Cable stations are subject to federal rules and local requirements, but their rules pertain mostly to the quality of cable services, rate structures, franchise fees, and so on. The few regulations about programming are much less strict than the standards applied to the major broadcast networks.

As a result, several cable networks began specializing in news slanted to support a political or ideological agenda. One network, Fox News, presents information in ways that appeal to and reinforce the beliefs of conservative viewers. It has proved to be a very successful formula. Fox is now the most widely watched news station in the U.S.

The Pew Research Center found that 60% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters rely heavily on Fox News, while 53% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters tune into CNN, a network that tilts slightly left. In 2012, researchers determined that people who relied on Fox for news knew less about current events than people who watched no news at all. Last July, a new study showed that the same is true for people who frequent the Fox News website.

News outlets like Fox (and conservatives would say CNN) contribute to the ideological rigidity and highly emotional polarization that plagues politics in the United States today. Outlets like these do less for “the responsibility of every American to be informed” than they do for each group’s conviction than it knows better than the other. The fortification of pre-existing biases and beliefs also happens on social media, which uses algorithms to diagnose a user’s beliefs and feeds back like-minded content. We come to the question again whether social coherence and goodwill require that the relationship between free speech and social responsibility should tilt toward responsibility.

It is a delicate and even dangerous question that begs more questions. How do we make sure that whoever sets and enforces the standards of free expression is not cultivating authoritarianism?

Foreign subterfuge

Even more worrisome, perhaps, is how we keep a democracy’s information channels open but safe from nefarious state and non-state interference? Cyber espionage, warfare, and crime are pressing issues worldwide beyond the scope of this article. More relevant are the activities by some nations to interfere with and manipulate the democratic processes of others.

Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are regarded as the nations that conduct most information warfare over the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies confirm Russia’s manipulation of public opinion during the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. The same agencies report that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to “hack” the 2020 election, too, in ways that favor either Trump or his opponent, Joe Biden. Experts say that other, smaller nations are working to acquire the same capabilities.

Russian leaders use social media to undermine the American people’s confidence in democracy overall. This isn’t new. “Cyber is facilitating more advanced and more effective psychological warfare, information operations, coercion and intimidation attacks,” NATO’s security expert Jamie Shea warned in 2017. “We used to worry about [hackers targeting] banks or credit cards or inconvenience to customers, now we worry about the future of democracy, the stability and health of our institutions.”

Russia’s use of fake organizations and inflammatory ads on social media is challenging Twitter and Facebook to make concessions to social responsibility. Both were criticized for failing to police Russia’s use of their networks in 2016. This year, Facebook says it will block all new political advertising a week before the November 3 election to prevent misinformation.

Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, says that his company disabled 1.7 billion fake accounts between January and March. Twitter has begun labeling tweets that violate its policies against fake accounts and identities. Two years ago, it created a public archive of 200 million tweets to study them for attempted manipulation. Congress has called on Facebook, Twitter, and Google to explain what they are doing to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 election.

America’s lawmakers are also concerned about foreign and domestic sources misusing Instagram, YouTube, and other social media to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, possibly inciting the demonstrations, fights, and even violence the country has experienced because of government mandates to wear masks, observe social distancing, and close businesses where crowds congregate.

The Internal threats

Facebook and Twitter are taking steps to identify and/or eliminate “false facts” from inside the United States, too. The most frequent and blatant source is Donald Trump, the “Tweeter-in-Chief.” He pecks out messages on Twitter night and day to dominate the news, insult opponents, praise his own performance, and take advantage of unfiltered contact with the American people.

He set a personal record of 142 tweets during his impeachment trial in January and February, then broke it in June with 200 tweets and retweets on a single day. When Twitter began labeling Trump’s provably inaccurate tweets, the president retaliated with an executive order to regulate social media companies.

The problem is not only Trump and not only social media. “Whether it’s newspapers, television, Facebook, YouTube, or Google searches, someone is pulling strings (and) lobbying their own agendas because there are no consequences,” social media consultant Lon Safko points out. “You can say anything you want, and there are no consequences.”

Social media also is an important propaganda tool for dictators and unscrupulous leaders around the world. In 2019, researchers at the University of Oxford found evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 countries. Twenty-six countries were using social media to “suppress fundamental human rights, discredit political opponents, and drown out dissenting opinions.” Government or political party “cyber troops” are using political bots to amplify hate speech, illegally harvest data, and mobilize “trolls” to harass political dissidents and journalists, the University reported.

“Despite the majority of adults surveyed in each country reporting that they used social networks to keep up to date with news and current affairs, a 2018 study showed that social media is the least trusted news source in the world,” says researcher Amy Watson of Statista, a statistics service. “Less than 35% of adults in Europe considered social networks to be trustworthy in this respect, yet more than 50% of adults in Portugal, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia said that they got their news on social media.”

“Concerns about fake news and propaganda on social media have not stopped billions of users accessing their favorite networks on a daily basis,” she says.

So, can freedom of speech survive social media? Can Democracies? Can we find ways to balance freedom of expression with social responsibility? If the proper formula requires restrictions on speech, what should they be? If the government’s job is to protect democracy from cyber-subterfuge, how will it keep up technologies that emerge much faster than governments act?

I think about this a lot. My answers are the same as those we often hear from the world’s top experts and policymakers:

Only time will tell.

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William Becker is an author and blogger in the United States. He writes about climate change and many other issues that strike his fancy.