The Anti-Human Rights Machine: Digital Authoritarianism and The Global Assault on Human Rights

Human Rights Quarterly, Fall, 2022.

40 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2022 Last revised: 29 Aug 2022

See all articles by Richard Ashby Wilson

Richard Ashby Wilson

University of Connecticut School of Law; Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut

Date Written: August 18, 2022


Across the world, governments and state-aligned actors increasingly target human rights defenders online using techniques such as surveillance, censorship, harassment, and incitement, which together have been termed “digital authoritarianism.” We currently know little about the concrete effects on human rights defenders of digital authoritarianism as researchers have focused primarily on hate speech targeting religious, national, and ethnic minority groups. This article analyzes the effects of digital authoritarianism in two countries with among the highest rates of killings of human rights defenders in the world; Colombia and Guatemala. Anti-human rights speech in these countries portrays defenders as Marxist terrorists who are anti-patriotic and corrupt criminals. Evidence for a direct causal link to offline violence and killing is limited, however, and this empirical study documents the non-lethal and conditioning effects of speech. Human rights defenders who are targeted online report negative psychological and health outcomes and identify a nexus between online harassment and the criminalization of human rights work. Many take protective measures, engage in self-censorship, abandon human rights work, and leave the country. To prevent these harms, social media companies must implement stronger human rights-protective measures in at-risk countries, including expediting urgent requests for physical protection, adopting context-specific content moderation policies, and publicly documenting state abuses. The article concludes by advocating for a new United Nations-sponsored Digital Code of Conduct that would require states to adopt transparent digital policies, refrain from inciting attacks, and cease illegally surveilling human rights defenders.

Keywords: Digital authoritarianism, hate speech, Twitter, human rights, human rights defenders, incitement, online harassment

Suggested Citation

Wilson, Richard Ashby, The Anti-Human Rights Machine: Digital Authoritarianism and The Global Assault on Human Rights (August 18, 2022). Human Rights Quarterly, Fall, 2022., Available at SSRN: or

Richard Ashby Wilson (Contact Author)

University of Connecticut School of Law ( email )

65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States


Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut ( email )

354 Mansfield Road
Storrs, CT 06269-1176
United States


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