Democracy...and the digital era!
Never before in history, has it ever been observed a more strong relation between digital technologies, and the way autocratic regimes, use this power, in order to prolong their existence.
Since the dawn of 2000, the new disruptive technologies, including internet and cell phones, gave citizens the chance to have a greater access to information, and the possibility to create new communities.
But this promising new world, that was supposed to promise a much more democratic place than in the past, proved to be non valid. These new technologies, empowered the autocratic regimes, with the necessary methods and the "tricks", that would allow them to preserve their power for longer periods of time, and gain control upon their opponents, and all those who actually tried to raise their voices against them.
In older times, it has been Stasi for example, East Germany's state security service, that managed to control the private and public sphere, known as the most pervasive secret police agency that ever existed. Stasi, had developed in the past one of the most vast nets of influence, in order to control citizens and expanded this net all over the country. Ofcourse all this control maintainance, needed years of organization and the creation of trust-nets, that would allow to place people in specific positions, that would help promote the goals of the security service.
On the other hand, the digital tools, enable the dictatorships to acquire a wider net of control and influence, without the use of any human-dependent policies. The pioneering element in this, is that they also need fewer resources. Monitoring posts made on social media, or text messages, requires no effort at all.
What has to be noticed here, is that the digital era has two sides. The first one, is that of the digital age which totally changed the context, in which the authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, could operate. The use of internet and the new technologies, made it extremely easy for citizens, to coordinate between them, and to mobilize against repression, and regimes that did not respect human rights. According to statistics, it has been recorded, that between 2000 and 2017, 60% of all the dictatorships globally, faced at least one anti-government protest, of 50 participants or more. Although all these demonstrations, didn't pose straight threat to the regimes they opposed, still many of these movements achieved the goal of the downfall of some authoritarian regimes. What a dictatorship would fear most, in the era of new technologies, is exactly this easy way that masses can communicate between them and get organized through interaction.
The second side of the digital era, is the point when the authoritarian regimes, realized this threat and started to adopt the same tools, in fact aquired even more, as they had the power to use them drastically, and turned the game of social media and internet in favor of their regimes.
Nowadays, it has been proved that dictatorships, which do not use digital repression as a method, face a higher risk to lose power, than those that make use of artificial intelligence surveillance.
China is the global leader of these tactics. High-resolution cameras, facial recognition and a wide range of methods, used to promote citizens' control, such as the "social credit scores", meaning that one behaviour is acceptable, and one other is untrustworthy, show that the Chinese Communist Party, collects an enormous amount of data on individuals and businesses.
China, also uses digital repression in order to control minorities on a mass scale. In Xinjiang, more than a million of Uighurs are detained in "reeducation" camps. The Uighurs that do not live in those camps, live in cities where the neighbourhoods are surrounded by gates, with facial recognition software, in a way to protect national security.
Except for blocking access to the internet "when necessary", or collecting data about opponents practices, or being aware of the citizens' mobility and their interaction on social media, so as to develop quickly restrictions on civil and political liberties, and thus make it more hard for people to unite against the state, what most autocratic regimes do, is that they use the new technologies, in order to shape public perception. That means, they use microtargeting and digital forgeries, that are imposible to distinguish from authentic video, or images, thus, creating a chaotic situation in citizens' minds, and ofcourse despair. This despair, usually leads to confusion and apathy, in return.
At the same time, the authoritarian regimes which use this policy, appear to be more "open" and "responsive" to the needs of their citizens. They intentionally promote online polls, especially in less educated groups of people, exactly as a marketing company would do, to promote a specific product in specific targeted groups. This way, the regimes, gain all the data and info they need and become aware, of how to approach non-educated masses.
In the recent years, we have sadly experienced a turmoil in democracy. Many countries such as the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Montenegro, Serbia, Sierra Leone and Indonesia, moved from a free status to a partly free status.
So the concluding point here, is that as long as the autocratic regimes gained knowledge and power on using new technologies, which at first, gave the chance to people to raise their voices, and became a means for mobility and organized demonstrations, which in many cases caused the downfall of dictatorships, it is time for democracies to fight back. The creation of a new approach, that will ensure, that new technologies will not be the obstacle to democratic values and ideas in the current century, remains to be seen...
written by Themis Panagiotopoulou, PhD in Political Science