Do digital technologies benefit governments or empower civil society actors?
Anita R. Gohdes provides the seventh chapter to Global Policy's e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. The e-book's chapters will be serialised on Global Policy over the course of 2023. Please find the other chapter's here.
Digital technologies are profoundly impacting state-society relations, and we are only slowly beginning to understand how far-reaching the implications are. The Internet has upended traditional media, has massively expanded the availability of information for those who have access to it, and has introduced new forms of communication and coordination. Trying to assess the Internet’s impact has remained an exceedingly difficult task for researchers, not least because it is a moving target: online spaces and the power asymmetries they produce are forever changing (Munger 2019).
Despite the difficulties of assessing the role of digital technologies at a societal level it is useful to take stock of the present status of things. I contend that presently, digital technologies are, on average, tipping the balance of power towards repressive states, when compared to the benefits they provide for civil society. It is not that digital technologies do not bring tangible benefits to civil society, but that state actors are currently able to weaponize digital technologies in ways that directly and forcefully undermine the work of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and marginalized communities.
Information and communication technologies have brought with them a range of tools that allow civil society to more effectively reach their constituents, to build cross-national and cross-sectoral coalitions, and to coordinate protests and humanitarian relief efforts. They also provide access to information for citizens who were previously constrained to consuming state-controlled media outlets. Public, semi-public and closed online spaces all enable new forums for marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, racialized minorities, and for other members of society who traditionally do not have safe access to public spaces in the offline world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies were crucial for the continuation of routine activities (such as school), and in the aftermath of the recent Earthquake in Turkey and Syria social media apps helped coordinate relief and rescue efforts efficiently.
Notwithstanding the just mentioned benefits for civil society, I argue that governments currently have the upper hand in controlling digital technologies. I distinguish between three spheres of control: Governments can constrain civil society online activity by passing laws and regulations aimed at criminalizing online speech, by weaponizing their domestic digital infrastructure, and by manipulating online spaces.
Criminalizing online content
In response to growing concerns about online mis- and disinformation, governments across the world have instituted a variety of laws targeting both content creators and content hosts, aimed at holding them accountable for content deemed to be misinformation. States’ abilities to change laws and regulations of online spaces provide them with an advantage vis-à-vis civil society actors, in that it opens up the possibility sanctioning unwanted civil society content under the guise of non-compliance with the law (Morgenbesser 2020). Where policies to regulate online speech the law have been kept deliberately vague they have provided significant leeway for enforcement authorities to interpret the policies in political ways, for example by targeting content posted by minorities and opposition movements. Legal measures aimed at regulating online content in countries with non-democratic institutions are particularly prone to being instrumentalized for political purposes, and can also have a chilling effect on users’ willingness to engage online if they are unsure of what content is permissible, and what content is not (Parks and Thomson 2020).
Weaponizing digital infrastructure
Beyond legal means, governments in most countries yield significant power over their digital infrastructure, which facilitates the implementation of digital censorship and surveillance technologies. The non-profit organization Access Now reported that in 2021 there were 182 intentional disruptions of the Internet occurred in 34 countries across that world, considerably higher than the 159 recorded instances in the year before. Censorship technologies allow authorities to control online spaces in ways that can significantly affect the ability of civil society actors to operate effectively. For instance, a number of countries systematically block access to websites that host LGBTQ+ content (OutRight Action International et al. 2021). Censorship also occurs at the content-level, which is common in countries that have substantial control over the domestically popular social media platforms (Pan 2017). Outside of regular politics, shutting down digital infrastructure has been used as part of concerted military efforts aimed at crushing the opposition, and has been linked to an increase in indiscriminate violence (Gohdes, forthcoming). During mass protests in Iran in 2019 the Iranian authorities shut down the Internet and employed lethal repression, systematic intimidation, and threatened the relatives of victims to not talk about their experiences once the Net was restored.
Governments can furthermore weaponize digital infrastructure through online surveillance (Xu, 2021). Mass analysis of metadata and social media content can help obtain information on current and future trouble-makers, and information gleaned from such sources as well from text messages and phone calls has been used to detain civil society members in countries such as Iran, Ethiopia, and Syria. Online surveillance can expand and enrich intelligence gathering activities of governments, thereby expanding access into previously hard to reach sectors of society (Gohdes, forthcoming). The targeted employment of malicious spying software has gained increasing popularity among nation-states. The Citizen Lab published a report in 2018 that documents spyware operations in 45 different countries, underlining the global breadth of surveillance activities (Marczak et al. 2018).
Manipulating the information environment
The third way in which governments benefit from digital technologies is through the manipulation of online spaces. While civil society actors can and do engage in the manipulation of online media, evidence is accumulating on state and state-affiliated actors’ online engagement. Due to their unrivaled access to the financial and human resources needed for the successful implementation of mass online manipulation, states have become extraordinarily successful at exploiting the design and politics of social media sites. Research on China has found that state-affiliated accounts strategically flood social media with pro-government content, aimed at drowning out other voices (Roberts 2018). In the Philippines, the United States, and Turkey, among others, researchers have documented coordinated online harassment against civil society members (Nyst and Monaco 2018). Strategic multi-platform campaigns that combine different facets of media manipulation have been traced back to actors close to the Saudi government (Jones 2022).
While I have focused my arguments here on repressive states, the implications are also relevant for liberal democracies that traditionally engage in lower levels of violent coercion. As Hegghammer (2021) notes in his analysis of the technological controls that were put in place in many liberal countries across the world as part of the War on Terror: ‘the rise of states immune to rebellion is not a good thing. It is naive to think that states’ new powers will be used only against people plotting bomb attacks’.
States’ ability to criminalize civil society content, weaponize digital infrastructure, and manipulate the information space means that the Internet currently provides more benefits to repressive states than it does to civil society. That is not to say that digital technologies can and do not empower civil society across the world. The mere fact that repressive governments perceive unmediated access to the Internet under their jurisdiction as so problematic that they invest heavily in controlling, censoring, and manipulating it suggests that unchecked digital technologies are seen as an existential threat to state power. Protecting and strengthening online spaces for civil society is now more important than ever.
Anita R. Gohdes is Professor of International and Cyber Security at the Hertie School in Berlin. She works at the intersection of international security and technology, and is the author of the forthcoming book titled Repression in the Digital Age: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Dynamics of State Violence.
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