Points on the Frontlines of Expertise and Politics

Desk of Contents


Steven Feldstein

World political tendencies in recent times have put to relaxation any illusions that the connection between technological innovation and progress in democratic politics can be largely constructive. Digital know-how is disrupting worldwide politics in myriad methods. To start out, it’s bringing new dimensions to the authoritarian playbook, enabling governments to extra simply manipulate info consumed by residents, to observe dissent and monitor political opponents, and to censor communications. Democracies, in the meantime, wrestle to strike the precise stability between rewarding financial innovation and reaping the monetary advantages of Large Tech, whereas defending consumer privateness, guarding in opposition to surveillance misuses, and countering disinformation and hate speech.

The COVID-19 disaster has intensified these tensions. Governments have seized upon the pandemic as an excuse to introduce a brand new wave of restrictions—emergency decrees that prohibit public gatherings, measures that censor on-line speech, and directives that have an effect on consumer privateness. States have deployed new purposes to counter the unfold of the illness, rolling out contact tracing apps, facial recognition techniques, and digital well being passports. A few of these applied sciences characterize official makes an attempt to manage the virus however many measures lack primary safeguards to guard knowledge privateness. Sure governments are utilizing knowledge collected from public well being interventions in pursuit of unrelated legislation enforcement actions. It’s unclear whether or not states will retract these restrictions when the pandemic lastly ebbs or if they’re right here to remain.

As the US’ affect decreases and rising states, notably China, enhance their energy, the worldwide on-line commons is fraying. Specialists as soon as divided web governance into “democratic” and “authoritarian” domains. On one aspect stood the US and its allies, which superior a mannequin centered spherical an “open, interoperable, dependable and safe web” that prioritized particular person freedom of motion, liberal values, and minimal authorities interference. On the opposite aspect stood a smaller group of nations led by China, Russia, and Iran, which provided an alternate mannequin premised on “info safety”—sustaining {that a} nation’s sovereign pursuits ought to dictate which guidelines apply. Regardless of insistence by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration that the world stays divided between “techno democracies” and “techno autocracies,” a extra correct description can be fragmentation. More and more, the world is splintering into nationwide or regional internets, ruled by completely different norms and guidelines and incorporating democratic and authoritarian traits.

Steven Feldstein

Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Battle, and Governance Program, the place he focuses on problems with democracy, know-how, human rights, U.S. international coverage, and Africa.

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In 2021 alone, a slew of nations, lots of them democratic, have adopted restrictive digital laws extra at house in authoritarian states. In June, for instance, Nigeria banned Twitter from working within the nation. The explanation was that Twitter had eliminated a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari that the corporate claimed violated its group tips. In response, the federal government accused Twitter of “undermining Nigeria’s company existence” and outlawed the service. In the meantime in India, the federal government decreed in February that every one on-line media shops and video-content suppliers have been required to nominate native representatives to answer each authorities criticism inside fifteen days. The legislation additionally licensed state officers to censure or delete content material that crossed sure strains. A number of months later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned so incensed after Twitter labeled a submit from his ruling Bharatiya Janata Social gathering “manipulated media” that he licensed a particular forces raid on the corporate’s places of work. Equally, the governments of Turkey, Uganda, the Philippines, and Indonesia have cherry-picked regulatory approaches to create distinctive native variations of the web—whether or not incorporating social media taxes and localization necessities or enacting burdensome content material restrictions. Extra lately, Russian authorities have refined a brand new tactic—demanding that Apple and Google take away applications from their app shops linked to opposition leaders—forward of Duma elections.

These tendencies trigger rising considerations about how know-how, politics, and state authority will evolve. Can democracies strike an acceptable stability between safeguarding their societies from dangerously polarizing on-line rhetoric whereas sustaining commitments to defending free expression? Can democratic leaders attain consensus about methods to deal with core coverage issues resembling establishing coherent guidelines about private knowledge safety and privateness, devising tips for the accountable use of rising applied sciences like facial recognition, or lastly reining in Large Tech’s extreme market and surveillance energy? What might be China’s affect on know-how and knowledge governance, and can its efforts to rewrite cyber norms permit digital authoritarian approaches to achieve floor? Can civic activists, unbiased journalists, and human rights advocates proceed to search out modern methods to push again in opposition to authorities repression utilizing new instruments, techniques, and applied sciences? The solutions to those questions will not be foretold—all of them characterize main areas of contestation.

Whereas policymakers search resolutions to those urgent questions, they’ll profit from the ground-level insights of consultants, students, researchers, and activists. The Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace has assembled the Digital Democracy Community—a various group of cutting-edge thinker-activists engaged in work on know-how and politics. The community goals to facilitate cross-regional information sharing, help collaborative methods to urgent issues, and examine beforehand unknown and rising questions within the discipline. This report represents the community’s first effort to explain challenges to governance posed by digital know-how.

This assortment highlights 4 themes.

First, it focuses consideration on the COVID-19 pandemic and evaluates nationwide and regional responses to the illness. Specialists are divided concerning the long-term political penalties of the pandemic. Teams resembling Freedom Home, Worldwide IDEA, and Worldwide Middle for Not-for-profit Regulation (ICNL) doc how surveillance overreach, knowledge and privateness vulnerabilities, media suppression, content material restrictions, and emergency decrees have challenged democratic establishments and undermined civil liberties. ICNL, for instance, reviews through its COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker that by September 2021, 109 nations had issued emergency declarations, 57 had instituted measures that affect freedom of expression, 150 had applied restrictions on freedom of meeting, and 60 had enacted restrictions on privateness.

Different organizations, nonetheless, paint a much less grim image. Researchers from the Kinds of Democracy venture write: “The COVID-19 pandemic has registered a number of wins and losses for democratic requirements. Whereas high-income Western democracies have usually carried out fairly properly, a number of low and lower-middle revenue nations stand out for his or her innovation and advances.” They observe that essentially the most severe democratic violations have tended to happen at the start phases of the pandemic and that the variety of restrictions has declined over time. They observe that courts have pushed again efficiently in opposition to overreach by government branches, that sure nations have managed to keep away from discrimination whereas establishing secure COVID-19 protocols, and that numerous states have efficiently countered public well being misinformation whereas avoiding broader media restrictions.

However, even when sure nations are witnessing latest governance enhancements, a number of regarding tendencies stand out. One, in nations already susceptible to repression, the pandemic has given better license to governments to enact further restrictions on residents’ liberties. Nations like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Turkey have pursued a mixture of new surveillance applied sciences and authorized directives which have considerably constrained freedom of affiliation and expression. Two, governments have used the specter of disinformation as a pretext to persecute below “pretend information” statutes scores of people, lots of whom occur to be civil society activists and political opposition figures, whereas on the identical time these governments have expanded their very own public well being disinformation efforts. State disinformation follows one in all three strains: denialist (governments discredit or deny reviews of outbreaks of their nations), anti-science (authorities decrease COVID-19 risks whereas rejecting accepted medical suggestions), and curist (leaders promote unfounded therapies for the virus—resembling Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine).

Members of the Digital Democracy Community provide their very own views concerning the which means and import of the COVID-19 pandemic. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, affiliated with Chulalongkorn College and the German Institute for World and Space Research (the GIGA) and Sangeeta Mahapatra, additionally with the GIGA, present a case-study evaluation of COVID-19 restrictions in Southeast Asia. ‘Gbenga Sesan, government director of Nigeria’s Paradigm Initiative, turns his eye to sub-Saharan Africa, the place he finds an analogous sample of COVID-19-related digital abuses occurring in Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia. Irene Poetranto and Lotus Ruan, researchers affiliated with the College of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, current a worldwide overview of latest applied sciences adopted in response to the pandemic. They look at the price of nations’ rising reliance on superior digital instruments in public well being and the place this reliance would possibly lead.

Second, community members describe how authoritarian regimes are using new applied sciences to strengthen their rule and counter opposition and civic challenges. An increasing set of nations are counting on facial recognition know-how, massive knowledge analytics, predictive policing methods, and Secure Metropolis techniques to boost their safety capabilities. The most recent knowledge from the Digital Society Undertaking, up to date to incorporate 2020 statistics, continues to indicate an in depth relationship between authoritarian regimes, constraints on political freedoms, and corresponding authorities reliance on digital repression methods. As Determine 1 exhibits, nations with the best prevalence of surveillance, censorship, web shutdowns, and disinformation embrace authoritarian stalwarts like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and nations in Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. Conversely, Europe and the Americas show decreased ranges of digital repression.

The evaluation on this part explores completely different points of those repression tendencies. They ask: Why do states select to undertake superior applied sciences from authoritarian sources? What technological strategies are Gulf states utilizing to enact their political agendas? What can civil society make of the expansion of web shutdowns and social media blockages around the globe? How are Myanmar’s armed forces incorporating digital methods as a method to implement troop loyalty and keep their management over the nation?

Akin Unver, an affiliate professor of worldwide relations at Turkey’s Özyeğin College, argues that financial issues, relatively than geopolitical or ideological preferences, are extra related in figuring out whether or not nations will supply synthetic intelligence applied sciences from China or from democratic states. Afef Abrougui, affiliated with the Social Media Change, writes concerning the adoption by Gulf Cooperation Council nations of a variety of repressive measures. She emphasizes that high-tech instruments not solely help their political targets however are additionally essential for future financial progress. Jan Rydzak, affiliated with Rating Digital Rights, describes the elevated use of web shutdowns to suppress dissent and block communications. He warns that authorities disdain for worldwide human rights rules “is pushing resistance to the breaking level.” Sarah Gordon, a analysis assistant at Carnegie, profiles how Myanmar’s navy is spreading on-line propaganda to strengthen troop loyalty, establish dissent, and isolate troopers from the skin world.

The third part tackles issues of disinformation. Disinformation has turn into the instrument of alternative for a lot of intolerant regimes, resembling these in Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. They search to govern public opinion to stay in energy however are cautious of instituting harder-edged repressive strategies. In liberal democracies, in the meantime, the specter of disinformation more and more stems from excessive political actions, notably far-right teams, which harness social media to propagate falsehoods, unfold conspiracy theories, and foment polarization and id politics. Disinformation methods contain widespread techniques: disseminate false narratives (whether or not pro-government propaganda, anti-vaccine conspiracies, or #StoptheSteal election claims), flood social media channels with competing or distracting info that overwhelms official info sources, and intentionally submit offensive content material on­line to impress or disrupt conversations.

In response to the deluge of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech, governments have began cracking down on platforms—requiring firms to take away unacceptable content material sooner. Some governments, resembling India’s, solely give platforms twenty-four hours to take away “manifestly illegal” content material. The EU has adopted a good stricter rule for terrorist content material—platforms have one hour to take away offensive materials. Many nations have additionally weakened or discarded intermediate legal responsibility protections for platforms. That is an comprehensible response in liberal democracies reeling from false and polarizing content material. Nevertheless, extra cynical autocratic regimes have seized upon the opening this pattern presents and labeled any content material essential of their agendas as “pretend information” and topic to elimination.

An even bigger query is how a lot governments ought to maintain platforms liable for facilitating the unfold of dangerous info. The proof is murky, notably in liberal democracies, about whether or not the surge in polarizing content material is primarily a consequence of social media. Whereas platforms present helpful targets for regulators desperate to make a dent in disinformation, new analysis signifies that false info spreads as a consequence of a fancy interplay between them and mainstream media shops. It’s inadequate guilty Fb or Twitter’s poor management for the way more sophisticated proliferation of politically motivated falsehoods.

Agustina Del Campo, who heads the Middle for Research on Freedom of Expression and Entry to Data on the College of Palermo in Argentina, contends in her contribution that policymakers have been too fast to label disinformation as a brand new class of social hurt—discarding prior consensus about what constitutes authorized speech. She argues that the very notion of distinguishing and taking down disinformation is premised on the shaky assumption {that a} “single authoritative supply” exists “in opposition to which all info might be assessed for reality.” Jonathan Corpus Ong, with the College of Massachusetts Amherst, explains how the web has accelerated the unfold of hate speech in opposition to minority communities. He explores the rising ranges of disinformation and hate speech focused in opposition to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the US.

The fourth part presents case research from two influential nations: India and Indonesia. As two of the world’s largest democracies, each have skilled an intolerant resurgence in recent times. They characterize essential areas of wrestle in relation to figuring out whether or not info and communication applied sciences can improve good governance or whether or not they may intensify polarization, id politics, and autocratic management. Arindrajit Basu, a researcher in India’s Centre for Web and Society, emphasizes the significance for democracies like India to facilitate uncomfortable conversations across the rule of legislation and human rights at house with a view to geopolitically compete in opposition to autocratic adversaries. Sinta Dewi Rosadi, a scholar at Padjadjaran College in Indonesia, scrutinizes digital privateness in that nation. She observes that Indonesia’s patchwork of laws associated to surveillance and knowledge privateness has continuously resulted “within the denial of transparency and due course of to Indonesian residents.”

These various world views make clear rising areas of contestation and spotlight the complexities, urgency, and risks concerned within the advance of digital applied sciences and their results on politics globally. The hope is that their contributions will assist policymakers join native views with world considerations, and that it’ll bridge the analysis hole between worldwide conversations going down in capitals and native realities on the bottom which are driving particular tendencies. Over time, Carnegie expects the community to generate new concepts that can affect related coverage conversations—whether or not developing with modern approaches to strengthening digital safeguards, providing new regulatory fashions for the accountable governance of rising applied sciences, or confronting regarding insurance policies associated to the COVID-19 disaster.


The Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Basis for the help that has made the institution of the Digital Democracy Community attainable. Further precious help has come from the Ford Basis, the Open Society Foundations, and the UK International, Commonwealth & Improvement Workplace. The authors alone are liable for the views expressed.

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