from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

How the Dictator’s Digital Dilemma Constrains Leaders’ Choices

China's President Xi Jinping claps after his speech.
China's President Xi Jinping claps after his speech. REUTERS/Jason Lee

An excerpt from Steven Feldstein's new book: The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology Is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance.

May 11, 2021 11:39 am (EST)

China's President Xi Jinping claps after his speech.
China's President Xi Jinping claps after his speech. REUTERS/Jason Lee
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Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of the new book: The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology Is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance.

In my new book, The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology Is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance, I describe how autocratic leaders are using digital technologies to subdue political challengers and stay their power. The world is experiencing a new wave of repression that relies on targeted surveillance, internet blocking, and disinformation to control the information environment and keep mass demonstrations at bay. The weaponization of technology represents a major sea change from the “liberation technology” claims of a decade ago, when social media-fueled protests in places like Tahrir Square ousted dictators. In the following excerpt from the book, I outline a particular challenge, deemed the “dictator’s digital dilemma,” faced by leaders who wish to implement programs of digital repression, but who also must contend with public backlash and reputational considerations.

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Digital technology has exacerbated the dictator’s dilemma [PDF]: how can those in power benefit from the economic gains and political advantages (e.g., increased information about public sentiment) that come from a digital society without sacrificing political control?

…Governments have devised creative ways to solve this dilemma. No other country has had more success, at present, in confronting this problem than China. Its underlying bargain entails sacrificing personal liberties in exchange for steady economic growth. As long as the economy stays strong, citizens will tolerate di­minished political freedoms. Thus, alongside China’s economic boom—which has enlarged its middle class by millions of people—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instituted a digital repression agenda incorporating mass web filtering, an expansive surveillance network anchored by facial recognition tech­nology, mass internet and social media monitoring, and even a mammoth DNA collection program. But China’s repression strategy also retains flexibility; it is much more than a monolithic regime of control. Instead, it has pursued what Rebecca MacKinnon terms “networked authoritarianism,” where the CCP maintains top-level control but also permits a “wide range of conversations about the country’s problems” on social media and websites. This accomplishes three objectives: citizens have an outlet to express grievances (providing a greater sense of freedom), the government can periodically respond to highlighted concerns (demonstrating its responsiveness to public concerns and making cit­izens feel that their voices are heard), and its authorities gain an effective means to monitor emerging problems and track dissent.

China is an outlier. It can get away with actions that other countries cannot. For example, when the CCP faced resistance from companies like Google, which were reluctant to institute mass censorship controls, it nurtured national alternatives—Baidu, Weibo, WeChat, Alibaba—that would abide by its rules. This led to the creation of a parallel Chinese internet that not only has flourished in the intervening years, but whose model now poses a direct threat to the orig­inal concept. China’s market size and sophisticated tech sector have given it the means to solve its digital dilemma. Most other countries lack these options. Instead, they have been forced to pursue alternative strategies to address their digital dilemmas.

One strategy is to rely on carefully calibrated methods of digital control. This could entail retaining state ownership over telecom companies responsible for providing internet access—as in Ethiopia—and throttling or limiting ac­cess when politically necessary. Another tactic is to vary digital investments or shutdowns by region based on political loyalty. In Cameroon, for example, long­time dictator Paul Biya has enacted full-scale shutdowns in the country’s restive anglophone region, while maintaining internet access in the rest of the country, ensuring he retains his base of support. In Thailand, the government pursues an array of internet controls but is keenly aware of what measures the public will tolerate (and what may go too far). As I discuss in chapter four, the Thai state readily blocks websites and uses lèse-majesté or cyber libel laws to suppress dis­sent, but it stops short of shutting down the internet; the threat to its digitally re­liant economy would be too great and would risk alienating its middle-class base.

A second strategy…is to forgo information control for social manipulation and disinfor­mation tactics. In other words, keep the information environment fairly open in order not to scare off investment, but use social media channels to relentlessly troll the opposition and flood out criticism of the government. As scholars Nils Weidmann and Espen Rød observe, these approaches operate from a common premise: government control over the internet is “highly asymmetrical” in rela­tion to opposition activists, providing state authorities with crucial advantages when carrying out their strategies. These examples illustrate how much governments have adapted their digital strategies in the intervening years since the Color Revolutions and Arab Spring protests.

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Nonetheless, states do not always succeed in accomplishing their digital repression objectives. While their strategies reduce the odds for successful re­gime challenges, online protest movements sometimes prevail, as recent cases in Armenia, Sudan, and The Gambia attest. How have these movements managed to withstand a generally dismal environment for digital activism? In part, their survival may be due to the discrepancy between short and long-term strategies of digital control. The bulk of the tactics described in this book—except for internet shutdowns—represent longer-term approaches. Such strategies are designed to establish, over time, systematic state control over key information pathways and communications networks in order to suppress dissent. But this approach does not mean that regimes won’t make miscalculations along the way that provide unexpected openings for their opponents. And once protests begin, they are difficult to contain: “Much research points to the importance of the speed with which digital communication travels during ongoing protests.” As a result, the best long-term digital strategies can fall by the wayside when luck, opportunity, and momentum come together for protesters.

Even if demonstrators are able to exploit short-term vulnerabilities to accel­erate actions against incumbent regimes, overall trends still favor governments. This trajectory represents a considerable shift from earlier pronouncements that liberation technology would be an inexorable force for change. Less than ten years ago, Larry Diamond made the convincing argument that ICT would en­able profound democratic connections between citizens and their governments, and would “expand the horizons of freedom.” By 2019, Diamond had signifi­cantly changed his tune…“Democrats worldwide are in a race against time to pre­vent cyberspace from becoming an arena of surveillance, control, and manipu­lation so all-encompassing that only a modern-day fusion of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World could adequately capture it.”

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