The Rise of Digital Dictatorships

Many people thought that the internet and the rise of social media would quickly usher in a wave of political reforms in countries that are ruled by dictators and authoritarianism.  

But Governments in authoritarian regimes have been remarkably successful at adapting to the perceived dangers posed to their political authority by the Internet. In this research we will look at how the internet has actually strengthened dictatorships.    

Online censorship may be a recent phenomenon, but censorship is not. It dates many centuries back, and has been, for short or long periods, a restriction on the ability of citizens to criticise Government policy in most parts of the world. Yet the extent and impact of censorship has taken new forms, in some instances reached new heights, with the progressive spread of new communication technologies. 

Recent events earlier in this decade such as the Arab revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; curbing of the twitter revolution in Iran, or Google’s decision to no longer run its China-based version of the search engine – demonstrate that the effects of censorship extend beyond national borders, and that censorship affects more than just the flow of information and media.  

Censorship and authoritarian control of the Internet has a cascading effect, impinging on national security, external relations with foreign powers, citizen’s rights and eCommerce. 

The country that has perhaps been criticised the most for its strictness of enforcement is China which ironically is also the largest Internet market in the world. 

 In recent years, the Chinese leadership has devoted more and more resources to controlling content online. Government policies have contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of postings on the Chinese blogging platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter),and have silenced many of China’s most important voices advocating reform and opening up the internet. 

The government has invested in technological upgrades to monitor and censor content. It has passed new laws on acceptable content, and aggressively punished those who defy the new restrictions. Under Xi Jinping, foreign content providers have found their access to China shrinking. They are being pushed out by both Xi’s ideological war and his desire that Chinese companies dominate the country’s rapidly growing online economy. 

The Chinese government has wholeheartedly embraced surveillance technology to exercise control over its citizenry in ways both big and small. It’s facial-scanning passers-by to arrest criminals at train stations, gas pumps, and sports stadiums. Government-maintained social credit scores affect Chinese citizens’ rights and privileges if they associate with dissidents.  

In Tibet and Xinjiang, the government is using facial recognition and big data to surveil the physical movements of ethnic minorities, individually and collectively, to predict and police demonstrations before they even start.  

Russia has also been a key cyber-dictator with the curtailment of internet and media freedom. A report by the Agora international human rights group found that out of more than 115,000 cases of Internet censorship in 2017, 110,000 were related to blocked websites, with an average of 244 web pages being blocked per day by the authorities.  

They also said that in the past 10 years, more than 200 cases of violence were recorded against bloggers, activists and journalists, including five murders.  

But it’s not just the obvious authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia and North Korea that are using technology to control political dissidence, others include India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, Burma and even Western democracies. These countries enforce censorship by blocking offensive content at home and abroad in order to maintain the status quo and single party or family regimes.  

Digital dictatorship has become an industry in itself. A UK-based watchdog recently published a report that The United States, the European Union and China are equipping, training and funding countries around the world, including autocratic governments, with surveillance capabilities.  

The report highlighted how and why Washington, Brussels and Beijing are spending billions of dollars on foreign security aid with the aim of equipping countries with the latest surveillance technologies and training.  

It details several ways of how surveillance practices are being funded, including the installation of surveillance technologies and the providing of intelligence training for state personnel. 

“What we’ve found during this is that in most of these countries we’ve looked at, including authoritarian ones, the security institutions and surveillance capabilities are being supported by other governments, particularly ones which themselves have powerful surveillance agencies, either by being financed, trained, or equipped by them,” Privacy International’s Edin Omanovic told Al Jazeera. 

According to the report, the US has provided interrogation and digital surveillance training for personnel from countries like Djibouti, Egypt, the Philippines, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and several others.   

The author of Sapiens, Yuval Harari, has gone further to argue that “Once we have algorithms that can understand better than I understand myself, they could predict my desires, manipulate my emotions and even take decisions on my behalf,” Harari said in his speech. “And if we are not careful, the outcome will be the rise of digital dictatorships.” 

He explained that in the 20th century, distributed data processing outperformed centralized data processing, which is one of the main reasons democracy prevailed over dictatorship in general, but that might not be the case in the future. 

 “In the 21st century, new technological revolutions, especially AI and machine learning might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction,” he said. “They might make centralized data processing far more efficient than distributed data processing. And if democracy cannot adapt to these new conditions, then humans will come to live under the rule of digital dictatorships.” 

We’re seeing evidence of this in companies vying to collect and store more and more data in order to get a bigger share of the markets they compete in. We’re also seeing the rise of data-driven government surveillance in different countries.  

The most notorious case is China’s social credit program, in which the government is colluding with big tech companies to keep tabs on the activities and of Chinese citizens by analyzing their data.  

But similar cases have happened in democratic countries such as the U.S. where the NSA tapped into the large centralized databases of companies such as Facebook and Google to establish a huge surveillance program 

More recently, we’re seeing machine learning algorithms and facial recognition technology becoming the new tool to control citizens.  

But digital dictatorship does not limit itself to highly accurate surveillance of citizens’ actions. It will become even more dangerous when it starts to steer those actions in its favour 

We already saw what big data and AI can do in the fake news scandals that emerged in the U.S. and European elections, in which malicious actors gamed the news feed algorithms of social media networks to try to sway public opinion in a specific direction. 

This can become worse as users generate more and more data and governments try to concentrate all that data under their control. At one point we might achieve the notion of persuasive computing, in which governments use small bits of targeted information to manipulate the minds of people in intended ways.  

In this new era of digital dictatorship, despots will no longer need to point guns at people to force them to do their bidding. They’ll have plenty of data to achieve their goals without shedding a drop of blood. 

Internet censorship in many countries is increasing by the day as the governments want to have a tight grip on what the citizens of the country are posting or reading on the net. The rationale behind this censorship is so that the citizens don’t indulge in any untoward religious or political debates thereby opposing their government and causing social/political unrest.  

Censorship is a double-edged sword. While the absence of it may lead to chaos, using it for suppressing dissent isn’t correct either. As more and more of what we do every day happens online, the way this battle plays out will determine how easy it is for governments and companies to shape our lives. 

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