Authoritarian influencers take advantage of emerging technologies and the globally connected digital environment to extend their reach into open societies.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Publication Date: November 13, 2023
High-Tech Chinese ‘Border Scanners’ Raise Transparency, Privacy Questions In Serbia
Authoritarian Country: China
Affected Region: Europe, Serbia
Author: Sonja Gocanin
China has donated border surveillance technology to Serbia under the stated goal of combatting smuggling and human trafficking across the Serbia-Bulgaria border. The donated technology, manufactured by CCP-backed Nuctech, may provide Beijing access to the personal data of EU citizens.
Source: Center for European Policy Analysis
Publication Date: November 12, 2023
Russia’s Hand Seen in Moldovan Local Elections
Authoritarian Country: Russia
Affected Region: Europe, Moldova
Author: Marija Golubeva
Candidates from Moldova’s Chance party were banned from the November 2023 elections for accepting laundered Russian funds. Through strategic investments, Russia has employed regionalization and strategic ambiguity to sow distrust in Moldova’s central government and democratic institutions.
Source: New York Times
Publication Date: November 2, 2023
In a Worldwide War of Words, Russia, China and Iran Back Hamas
Authoritarian Country: China, Iran, Russia
Affected Region: Global
Author: Steven Lee Myers, Sheera Frenkel
Russia, China, and Iran have launched information campaigns to amplify messaging from Hamas’s online propaganda efforts. Outlets including Russia’s Sputnik India and RT en Español have echoed anti-western rhetoric and coopted anti-imperial messages to influence audiences across the Global South.
Source: Coda Story
Publication Date: October 25, 2023
Inside the Brain of a Kazakh Smart City
Authoritarian Country: China
Affected Region: Eurasia, Kazakhstan
Author: Bradley Jardine
A small village in Kazakhstan has deployed Chinese surveillance technology ahead of government plans to create smart cities nationwide. Analysts have raised concerns over China’s access to the private data of Kazakh citizens and collaboration with China to target protesters and minority groups.
Source: Institute for Strategic Dialogue
Publication Date: October 24, 2023
Capitalizing on Crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to Exploit Israel-Hamas Information Chaos
Authoritarian Country: China, Iran, Russia
Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Israel, North America, United States, Global
State-linked social media accounts from Iran, Russia, and China have used the Israel-Hamas conflict to spread disinformation and anti-Western rhetoric. This disinformation includes manipulated videos, false claims about US involvement in the conflict, and dangerous demonization of Israeli civilians.
Publication Date: October 22, 2023
Iran Joins Middle East Propaganda War on China’s TikTok
Authoritarian Country: China, Iran
Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, China
Author: Aadil Brar
Iranian narratives on the Israel-Hamas conflict have proliferated on the popular Chinese short-video app Douyin. Iran has spread pro-Hamas and antisemitic propaganda to 1 million followers on Douyin, which Chinese state media has reposted.