Why do some states employ digital repression and not others?
Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall–Taylor provide the second chapter to Global Policy 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 tools—namely the Internet, social media, and Artificial Intelligence (AI)—are supercharging government efforts to repress citizens and maintain political control. There are a variety of forms that such digital repression can take, ranging from simple tactics, such as Internet shutdowns, to more sophisticated techniques, such as disinformation campaigns to discredit opponents. Although the term digital repression is most often associated with notions of today’s increasingly savvy autocrats, governments of all stripes are deploying digital tools for repressive purposes. Indeed, the data show that both democracies and autocracies have increased their use of digital repression (Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright 2020). Digital repression is therefore a global phenomenon, as this book makes clear. Yet, what explains why some states use digital repression more than others? Though research in this field is nascent, here we explore the role of three factors: regime type, digital capacity, and levels of wealth. We also highlight how digital repression is making autocracies more durable, while raising the risks of democratic decay in new and/or weak democracies.
Digital repression is in many ways like traditional repression. The goal of both is to increase the costs of disloyalty and to help leaders identify their opponents and restrict their ability to mobilize in ways that run counter to the government’s interests. Because authoritarian regimes repress more than their democratic counterparts, it is unsurprising that digital repression is higher in autocracies than democracies (Feldstein 2021). As of 2019, it was North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that relied most on digital repression (Frantz and Kendall-Taylor 2021). In fact, regime type is one of the strongest predictors of the extent to which a government will use digital repression: as democracy levels increase, levels of digital repression decline.
Digital repression is a more attractive tool for autocratic governments than democratic ones because the former have fewer constraints on their ability to apply it and are less likely to face backlash for doing so. Consistent with this insight, Feldstein (2021) finds that as a country’s repression of civil liberties increases, so too does its use of digital repression. This suggests that governments are more likely to see digital repression as an attractive tactic when they expect to face limited public criticism or collective action against the government in response.
In addition to explaining differences in the level of digital repression across countries, regime type also sheds light on the types of digital repression that governments are most likely to use. Democracies (as of 2019) were most likely to rely on social media monitoring, followed by social media censorship, though their reliance on even these tools is far lower than in authoritarian regimes (Frantz and Kendall-Taylor 2021). Today’s democracies rely least on shutting down or filtering the Internet or social media than on other digital tools. Dictatorships (as of 2019) relied most on social media monitoring, followed by Internet filtering. They too relied least on shutting down the Internet or social media.
In theory, a state’s digital capacity should affect the extent of digital repression it uses. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), for example, is on the cutting edge of digital repression. The government has developed significant capacity to monitor, manipulate, and control its citizens through digital means. In the case of the PRC, high levels of digital capacity enable high levels of digital repression. Yet, digital capacity is not always a clear predictor of a government’s use of digital repression. Many governments excel at cyber security or content moderation, for example, but choose not to use such capacity to surveil citizens or track political opponents. Conversely, some governments lack the ability to apply digital repression in a sophisticated fashion, and therefore opt to rely on rudimentary tactics instead, such as shutting down the Internet. Likely for these reasons, the data show that autocratic governments employ more digital repression, on average, than their levels of digital capacity would suggest, while the opposite is true of democracies (Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright 2020).
Importantly, less capable states can acquire more sophisticated tools, such as surveillance software, from more capable states. Indeed, the ability to import digital repression is one of the factors that sets this type of repression apart from its more traditional forms. In the past, cultivating an effective repressive apparatus with widespread boots-on-the-ground surveillance capacity entailed recruiting, training, and arming thousands of loyal cadres. With digital tools, however, this sort of extensive manpower is no longer necessary to surveil and monitor citizens. Governments can simply import the capacity to digitally repress by buying desired technologies and training a small number of individuals in how to use them. In the digital age, developing an effective repressive apparatus is no longer restricted to a handful of competent dictatorships, suggesting that the repressive capabilities of today’s authoritarians are likely to expand in the years to come.
Levels of wealth
Levels of wealth are another factor that helps explain a country’s reliance on digital repression, albeit only in democracies. The data show that as democracies grow richer, their use of digital repression declines (Frantz and Kendall-Taylor 2021). This is likely because wealthier democracies tend to have firmer mechanisms of accountability and more robust democratic institutions in place, lessening incidences of such repression.
In terms of digital capacity, levels of wealth are tightly linked to a country’s capacity for digital repression, regardless of whether it is authoritarian or democratic. This suggests that in democracies, as states grow richer, they obtain greater digital capacity but use digital repression less. In dictatorships, however, wealth is associated with greater digital capacity but not with changes in reliance on digital repression. Future research is needed to better understand the ways in which changes in levels of development influence government decisions to adopt digital tools and use them for repressive purposes.
It is worth noting that a state’s military spending is positively correlated with its use of AI-based surveillance systems (Feldstein, 2019a). Though this does not mean states with high military spending are using such systems for repression, among the fifty states with the highest military spending, 80 percent use AI-based surveillance technology
The implications of digital repression
Digital repression serves numerous functions for the governments that deploy it. In addition to helping governments monitor and identify their opponents, new technologies allow governments to keep tabs on other government officials in ways that enable them to root out underperforming members that can reduce citizen dissatisfaction with government performance, gain greater information about ordinary citizens in ways that improve their ability to respond to and/or address sources of discontent before they escalate, and more effectively control and manipulate their information environments. Digital tools also blur the lines between cooptation and repression, enabling governments to fine-tune their use of reward and refusal in ways that encourage compliance with government objectives.
For these reasons, there is good reason to expect that digital repression will confer survival benefits for the governments that use it. More specifically, research on autocracies shows that digitally repressive autocrats face a lower risk of protests than those autocrats who rely less heavily on these tools (Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright 2020). Digital repression not only decreases the likelihood that a protest will occur but also reduces the chances that a government will face large, sustained mobilization efforts, such as the ‘red shirt’ protests in Thailand in 2010 or the anti-Mubarak and antimilitary protests in Egypt in 2011.
Autocracies lower risk of protest may be a product of the fact that digital tools are supercharging traditional methods of control. In particular, dictatorships that increase their use of digital repression also tend to increase their use of violent forms of repression ‘in real life’, particularly torture and the killing of opponents (Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright, 2020). By providing dictatorships with more information about their opponents, digital repression enables regimes to use violence more precisely and efficiently. This is advantageous given the potential for indiscriminate government violence to trigger political backlash. In this way, digital repression allows autocracies to reap the benefits of repression while reducing the costs of doing so.
As autocracies have learned to finetune their use of digital tools, they have become a more formidable threat to democracy. Our research shows that that digital repression is making authoritarian regimes more durable (Frantz, Kendall-Taylor, and Wright 2020). Between 2000 and 2017, of the 91 dictatorships that had survived in power more than one year, 37 collapsed; those that avoided collapse had significantly higher levels of digital repression, on average, than those that fell.
Finally, although less is known about the implications of digital repression for democracies, there are indicators that it may be facilitating backsliding in environments where democracy is already fragile. New technologies are particularly dangerous for weak democracies because so many are dual use: technology can enhance government efficiency and provide the capacity to address challenges such as crime and terrorism, but—regardless of the intentions with which governments initially acquire such technology—it can also be used to muzzle and restrict the activities of political opponents. Greitens (2020), for example, shows that high crime rates are a key factors explaining which countries are most likely to adopt the PRC’s digital tools. Whether these technologies are applied in ways that violate human rights depends on domestic factors and weak and/or fragile democracies have fewer constraints on the ability to repurpose these technologies for repressive purposes.
The strong relationship between regime type and levels of digital repression suggests that components of democracy—for example the strength of a country’s legal system, courts, and civil society organizations that can shine light on government abuses—are key to mitigating the negative uses of digital tools. Future research is needed, however, to better understand the specific laws or legal frameworks that would effectively limit abuses, especially in new or fragile democracies that acquire digital tools for legitimate reasons such countering crime or terrorism. Likewise, the ease with which governments can import the capacity for digital repression underscores the importance of the United States and its democratic allies modernizing and expanding legislation to help ensure that democratic entities are not enabling digital human rights abuses. Though our understanding of why some countries digitally repress more than others is limited, this discussion highlights key areas that can already be pursued to reduce its spread.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Erica Frantz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University. She is an expert on authoritarian politics, particularly themes related to democratization, backsliding, conflict, and development.
Photo by Alex Green
Feldstein, Steven. 2021. The Rise of Digital Repression How Technology Is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance. Oxford: Oxford University Press USA - OSO.
Frantz, Erica, and Andrea Kendall-Taylor. 2021. “Digitized Autocracy Literature Review: Final Report.” DRG Center Working Paper, U.S. Agency for International Development. https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00XV9R.pdf.
Frantz, Erica, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright. 2020. “Digital Repression in Autocracies Users Working Paper.” V-DEM Institute. https://www.v-dem.net/media/publications/digital-repression17mar.pdf.
Frenkel, Sheera. 2015. “These Two Companies Are Helping Governments Spy on Their Citizens.” BuzzFeed News, August 24, 2015. https://bit.ly/2lQM5B8..
Greitens, Sheena Chestnut. 2020. “Dealing with Demand for China’s Global Surveillance Exports.” Brookings.edu. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/dealing-with-demand-for-chinas-global-surveillance-exports/.