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The GDR’s state security service, the Stasi, is one of the most penetrating secret police organizations ever to operate. It devoted enormous resources to surveillance and control of all information flows; in 1989 it had almost 100 000 staff and at least 500 000 informants (out of a population of about 16 million). Thanks to such an extensive network of agents and allies, the Stasi’s presence was felt in all areas of East German life: it tapped telephones, monitored personal and family relationships and even inspected mail. The Stasi was an example of how a dictatorship, in order to retain power, took great pleasure in suppressing its citizens.
Most dictatorships have neither the resources nor the skills to imitate the East German model. With the advent of new technologies, however, this is no longer necessary: digital tools offer autocratic power holders simple and inexpensive alternatives to satisfy their surveillance needs. Not infrequently, the new methods exceed even the wildest dreams of the former GDR’s civil service.
China is at the forefront of this development. The regime of the Communist Party is the prime example of the modern digital dictatorship: it uses surveillance techniques based on artificial intelligence, for example, to transmit incredible amounts of information about its citizens, from their tax returns to their medical records. A «Social Credit System» is designed to ensure that citizens comply with the regime’s code of conduct. In the Xinjiang region, the government uses identification software to monitor the Uygur population around the clock and to enforce who is allowed to pass through certain checkpoints. The ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras has allowed the detention of over one million Uyghurs.
New digital tools also improve the Chinese regime’s censorship potential: the «Great Firewall» enables the government to search, filter and block huge amounts of Internet content. Unpleasant voices and critics of the regime can thus be silenced in a targeted, efficient and almost instantaneous manner. Dictatorships can also use the new technologies to shape the public perception of the regime: Automated accounts in social media can intensify campaigns of influence and generate a flood of distracting or misleading contributions in order to suppress the messages of opponents. Digital tools help dictatorships to present themselves to their citizens as well-meaning and open-minded – even if their true face is often quite different.
«More intense digital repression is correlated
with a longer life span of the dictatorship.»
With the advent of new technologies, aspiring dictatorships no longer need to recruit and train additional security personnel to oppress their citizens. Instead, they can easily and conveniently buy new repression technologies and train some officials in their use (often with support from China). In literally no time, the surveillance nightmare becomes a reality.
Obstetrician of the dictatorship
This new form of digital repression is changing the future prospects of the world’s autocrats. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Joseph Wright and I have shown through our research that more dictatorships than ever before have installed an extensive technological repressive apparatus. From the regime’s perspective, this makes perfect sense: digital repression reduces the risk of protests, which are the greatest threat to authoritarian government officials as of today. It also enables the regime to pursue more «high-intensity» forms of repression, such as a system of targeted detention of dissidents. Finally, more intense digital repression is correlated with a longer life span of the dictatorship: Highly technological regimes last longer. Between 1946 and 2000 – the year in which digital tools began to spread – a typical dictatorship lasted about ten years. This figure has more than doubled since 2000. It is often obvious that modern technologies play a role in this: Between 2000 and 2017, 37 of the 91 dictatorships that had existed for more than a year collapsed; on average, those regimes that avoided collapse exhibited a significantly higher level of digital repression.
Today’s dictatorships are using a new arsenal of digital tools to make authoritarianism work for a modern age. In fragile democracies, technologies bring with them an increased risk of a democratic relapse. The case is clear: trends indicate that the fight for global freedom will continue. Contrary to the hopeful expectations of technology optimists at the beginning of the millennium, digital tools in today’s dictatorships are not a bringer of democracy, but above all a means of repression by the autocrats; with them, those in power oppress their citizens and expand their access to might. Only those who become aware of this gloomy reality can take action against it.
Further reading by Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright on the topic: The Digital Dictators: How Technology Strengthens Autocracy. In: Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020). And: Digital Repression in Autocracies. The Varieties of Democracy Institute Users Working Paper, March 2020.