Technology

Technology

Technology

Authoritarian influencers take advantage of emerging technologies and the globally connected digital environment to extend their reach into open societies.

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Overview

Rapid advancements in the technological sphere have been a driving force of globalization, leading to ever deeper forms of technological interdependence between democracies and autocracies. Ubiquitous instant-communication tools and technologies that enable the collection and processing of big data have opened unexpected avenues for the manipulation of public opinion, political processes, and democratic institutions. 

Emerging technologies are reshaping how communities interact with their environment, how businesses deliver services, and how governments solve problems. Until the past decade, the dominant assumption was that the conveniences and practical capabilities of new technologies—including big data tools, integrated urban-management systems (“smart cities”), and the so-called Internet of Things (IOT)—would generate positive progress. Instead, it has become increasingly clear that the advantages these powerful technologies offer to authoritarian regimes have been profoundly underestimated.


Sharp Power Influence

Platforms and innovations developed in open, democratic settings are not immune from vulnerabilities. Google and Apple, for example, have conceded to content takedown requests from authoritarian actors, setting a harmful precedent for free speech. 

The rapid diffusion of platforms incubated in authoritarian settings poses an additional threat. The widespread uptake of TikTok and WeChat—both developed by Chinese-owned companies—has enabled censorship, misinformation, and other corrosive practices in some settings.

Authoritarian powers are harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to devise ever more precise methods of social management. When disseminated in places where civil society and government oversight are limited, AI technologies can facilitate the closing of civic space and the normalization of authoritarian values.  

International standard-setting bodies—such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)—present a ripe opportunity for authoritarian actors to shape the underpinnings of the international technological environment, from technical standards to the conceptual framing of tech-related debates.

Emerging technologies offer numerous conveniences and capabilities, benefiting consumers and government alike; they also carry inherent risks that can threaten liberal democracies when leveraged by powerful dictatorships that wish the reinforce and spread their authoritarianism.

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Samantha Hoffman

Double-Edged Sword: China’s Sharp Power Exploitation of Emerging Technologies

Democratic Responses

Modern technology is shaping the political landscape, and democracies should deepen efforts to encourage free expression, protect the integrity of information, and strengthen essential privacy safeguards. Civil society can meet this multisectoral challenging by coordinating with media, government, and private-sector actors.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Civil society should participate in transparent, multistakeholder governance and international standard-setting bodies like the ITU, ISO, and IEC.
  • Nongovernmental actors can support the “siloing” of data to limit authoritarian affordances and enhance security.
  • Civil society should encourage investment in research and development to offer credible alternatives to systems and services designed to meet authoritarian standards.
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Media and civil society organizations should coordinate to expose and amplify indicators of tech-enabled sharp power in their countries. This will contribute to broader public awareness of the issues, encourage debate on what should be done, and pressure governments to take protective action.
  • Corporate and government research-and-development technology enterprises should invite civil society groups to consult on whether their technologies meet democratic standards. 
Education and Awareness
  • Civil society organizations should be trained on emerging technologies and enabled to implement digital literacy programs that go beyond basic personal and corporate data-management practices.
  • Civil society can leverage foreign-language expertise to pursue research into authoritarian states’ laws, regulations, and pronouncements surrounding emerging technologies.

Technology

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers influence international norms and standards governing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart cities, big data, and surveillance tools.

Latest Resources

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Source: Atlantic Council

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

China’s Discourse Power Operations in the Global South: An Overview of Chinese Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, South Africa, Iran, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean

Author: Kenton Thibaut

View Resource: China’s Discourse Power Operations in the Global South: An Overview of Chinese Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East

Case studies on South Africa, Venezuela, and Iran reveal evidence of a symbiotic relationship between Beijing’s efforts to enhance its discourse power—including by co-opting the voices of foreign leaders—and local governments’ efforts to weaken the checks and balances that civil…

Source: The Diplomat

Publication Date: April 15, 2022

The CCP’s Ukraine War Propaganda

Authoritarian Country: Russia, China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Sarah Cook

View Resource: The CCP’s Ukraine War Propaganda

Three tactics played an outsized role in the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to shape public opinion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: flagship state media echoing Russian state disinformation, manipulation of social media hashtags, and censorship of alternative viewpoints and information…

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: April 14, 2022

How Beijing Runs the Show in Hollywood

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Aynne Kokas

View Resource: How Beijing Runs the Show in Hollywood

The relationship between PRC rules, the Chinese entertainment industry, and U.S. media conglomerates underscores a transition in the role of entertainment in politics. Beijing increasingly weaponizes technology and corporations’ dependence on political authorities for market access to control content.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: April 14, 2022

China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Samantha Hoffman

View Resource: China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism

Emerging technologies, particularly those utilizing big data, are a critical component of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to manipulate global audiences. Large datasets can reveal trends in human behavior, enabling the party-state to better understand public sentiment and disseminate propaganda.

Source: Doublethink Lab

Publication Date: March 30, 2022

Analysis: How Ukraine Has Been Nazified in the Chinese Information Space?

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Ukraine, Europe

Author: Jerry Yu

View Resource: Analysis: How Ukraine Has Been Nazified in the Chinese Information Space?

Previously established cooperation agreements laid the groundwork for Russian and Chinese state media and state-linked social media to work in tandem to influence public opinion in China, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora in favor of the invasion of Ukraine on…

Source: Associated Press

Publication Date: March 29, 2022

How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Amanda Seitz, Eric Tucker, Mike Catalini

View Resource: How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

The Chinese Communist Party has built a network of social media personalities who proffer propaganda to users around the globe, operating in lockstep as they deflect international criticism of human rights abuses and advance Beijing’s talking points on world affairs…

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