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.
Latest ResourcesView All
Source: Voice of America
Publication Date: March 6, 2023
South Africa’s ANC Received Big Donation from Russian Oligarch-Linked Firm
Authoritarian Country: Russia
Affected Region: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa
Author: Kate Bartlett
The African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, received a large donation from a mining company used by a Russian oligarch to evade sanctions. Critics say this gift is a bribe in exchange for the ANC’s support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Source: The Guardian
Publication Date: February 12, 2023
Australia Foils Iran Surveillance Plot and Vows to Bring Foreign Interference ‘Into the Light’
Authoritarian Country: Iran
Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia
Author: Daniel Hurst
The Iranian government attempted to surveille dissidents and members of the diaspora living in Australia in order to threaten relatives or protesters back in Iran. Iran’s goal was to prevent criticism of the regime from Iranians living abroad.
Publication Date: February 6, 2023
Disney Removes Simpsons ‘Forced Labour’ Episode in Hong Kong
Authoritarian Country: China
Affected Region: North America, United States
Author: Nicholas Yong
An episode of American TV show The Simpsons was blocked in Hong Kong because of references to the human rights violations and forced labor camps in Xinjiang. American companies have had a tendency to comply with Chinese government demands to retain access to the Chinese market.
Source: All Africa
Publication Date: February 1, 2023
Africa: Taking a Toll – Lessons from Nairobi’s Expressway
Authoritarian Country: China
Affected Region: Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya
Author: Msingathi Sipuka
A new Chinese-built highway was billed as a benefit for citizens in Nairobi. However, an exploitative toll agreement benefitted the Chinese operators and made the expressway inaccessible for Kenyans.
Source: The Guardian
Publication Date: January 31, 2023
Saudi Arabia Tourism Body’s Sponsorship of 2023 Women’s World Cup Condemned by Human Rights Groups
Authoritarian Country: Saudi Arabia
Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand
Author: Mostafa Rachwani
Saudi Arabia paid millions of dollars to become a sponsor of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Organizations have called this a ploy to distract from Saudi women’s lack of political and economic rights in the kingdom, acting to whitewash their reputation on the world stage.
Source: Gulf International Forum
Publication Date: January 4, 2023
Saudi Investment in Africa Surges as Iran’s Influence Sputters
Authoritarian Country: Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates
Affected Region: Senegal, Mali, Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Mozambique, Guinea, Benin, The Gambia
Author: Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
In an effort to diversify its investments and counter Iran, Saudi Arabia developed new relationships across Africa. For the Saudis, Emiratis, and Iranians, African economies present an opportunity to develop political influence outside of the Middle East, while reaping Africa’s natural resources.