Digital communications technologies have been a powerful tool in the advancement of democratic governance, but in recent years there has been increasing concern that these technologies are also being used to undermine democracy. As countries like Russia move to ban social networking sites wholesale, and social media and internet shutdowns become a predictable part of the political process in countries like Sudan and Tanzania, it is important to take stock of the situation, as well as try to get a global picture of how political systems of all kinds are responding to the rise of digital political activity. As more of us take our protests and organising online, governments across the political spectrum are increasingly attempting to counter such action.
The Unfreedom Monitor is an Advox research initiative that examines the growing phenomenon of networked authoritarianism or digital authoritarianism. “Digital authoritarianism” describes the use of technology to advance repressive political interests. It is not purely confined to authoritarian regimes. Democratic states also use and sell advanced technology to track and/or surveil citizens, spread mis-/disinformation, and disempower citizens’ civic and political participation. Nor is it only states that perpetrate digital authoritarianism—corporations located in democratic countries are key suppliers of the technology that is used.
The growth of digital authoritarianism highlights an important paradox: the internet, seen in its early days as a utopian project that promoted civic and political participation, can also be used to quash the same behaviours that it helps foster. By understanding authoritarianism as a process rather than an event, and by focusing on political choices that exacerbate this process, we can deepen our understanding of how technology impacts human rights. This is especially relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where technologies that were built to control the spread of the virus also provided some states with considerable power to surveil citizens.
One major aim of this project is to provide richer context that transcends unique national or thematic situations. It would be an omission to focus solely on the internet and ignore, for example, the effects of the mechanisms of growing repression on press freedom and human rights. In the countries we studied, we found a strong correlation between declining press freedom and growing digital authoritarianism. Information, after all, is the raw material of governance, and both online spaces and traditional media serve the important function of making information available to people and communities to enable them to make independent evaluations of their governments. The impetus to control information on the internet is directly connected to the impetus to control information shared by the press.
This briefing document provides an overview of key developments in digital authoritarianism in 11 countries and explains the theoretical framework and methodology behind The Unfreedom Monitor project. The document also provides a basis for expanding this research to other countries to deepen our understanding of digital authoritarianism globally, as well as its crucial implications for the future. The preliminary sample of 11 countries was chosen to reflect a range of factors: system of government, approach to human rights (including rankings in indexes), and corporate relations. The countries are: Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Morocco, Myanmar, Russia, Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey, and Zimbabwe.
Desk research supplemented qualitative study of a dataset comprising media items exploring issues, events, actors, narrative frames, and responses, to identify trends and patterns of digital authoritarianism. We also conducted weekly seminars with the research team to gain a sense of any cross-cutting themes and commonalities that emerged. One interesting outcome was finding that while clients and their interests may be varied, only a handful of companies—many based in nominally democratic countries—were selling the technology that makes some digital authoritarian practices possible.
Another four researchers also worked with four cross-cutting themes concerning digital authoritarianism to develop an approach that can be used across contexts. These themes were: data governance, speech, access, and information. The tendency with internet research is to think about ideas or development in thematic isolation, and we encouraged this cohort of researchers to think both broadly and deeply about what unites all these separate ideas.
The report finds that digital authoritarianism is not confined to authoritarian states. Rather, it is a culture—of increasing executive power, legislation, and global capital flows—that allows the state to interfere in citizens’ lives and to stifle or frustrate civic engagement. There is no single predictive factor, but digital authoritarianism is closely related to the contraction of press freedom, and resistance to political transitions. Moreover, it is a transnational process, and the availability of technology in one part of the world will eventually have political consequences in another.
Written by Nanjala Nyabola