Digital authoritarianism—the use of information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations—is on the rise. In China, the Great Firewall and other systematic tools of digital oppression define the norms of public and private discourse. In Turkey, Wikipedia was banned for nearly three years before the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the ban was a violation of freedom of expression. In Myanmar, a military coup has instituted nightly internet shutdowns. The Washington Post, as part of the global Pegasus Project, has uncovered widespread abuse of spyware technology to monitor dissidents.
The list of such abuses of the human right to participate in free and open digital discourse is long. Moreover, the methods of digital authoritarianism are broad: blocking access to the internet, censoring content, flooding the information sphere with disinformation in addition to co-opting social media and other online platforms. These methods are enabled by an array of tools and technologies, including surveillance, censorship, social manipulation, cyberattacks, and targeted online persecution. Technologies such as artificial intelligence vastly expand the reach of these tools.
While authoritarian regimes have always tried to tightly control their people, the modern means by which we communicate bring new and frightening dimensions. What is equally disturbing is that democratic governments, including that of the United States, have been for the most part observers of digital oppression.
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