What is digital authoritarianism?

The use of technology to suppress human rights

September 28, 2020

One of the hidden blessings of 2020 has been the ability to rethink our routines and habits. Some have picked up new hobbies while others have decided to rethink how they approach technology, news, and social media. Early in the pandemic, I decided to try intentionally to get my news from sources outside of social media as a way to combat the constant churning of my social media feeds which are often full of unhealthy obsessions with controversy, underdeveloped stories without context, and a good bit of fake news.

This year, I subscribed to a few different print magazines and email newsletters that I attempt to read through each week. One that I have particularly enjoyed is The Economist because it forces me outside of my comfort zone at times and allows me to gain a global perspective on news and culture. Truthfully, I am not always successful at avoiding the hamster wheel of social media, but these little shifts in my news intake have really helped me so far. One of the most consequential issues that I have read a good deal about recently is the rise of what is called digital authoritarianism and how this movement impacts how we think about matters like international human rights.

The goal of authoritarianism

Digital authoritarianism, also known as techno-authoritarianism, is the way that many leaders around the world wield the power of the internet and technology to gain or solidify control over their people. Authoritarianism is not a new concept, but in recent years there seems to be a growing trend of leaders using technology in order to strengthen their ruling power and attain growing influence around the world.

This form of government is often characterized by a central figure or political party that amasses enough power and influence to effectively strip their citizens of certain rights and freedoms but does not control every aspect of their lives like a totalitarian regime would. Authoritarian leaders usually seek to centralize their power around the political processes of a nation and the individual freedoms of the people. This is all normally done without any real type of constitutional accountability or oversight. And with the power and influence of technology, this centralization has become even easier in recent years.

As three national security experts recently stated, “Authoritarians are using technology to deepen their grip internally, spread propaganda, undermine basic human rights, promote illiberal practices beyond their borders, and erode public trust in open societies.” In 2020 alone, we have seen the Chinese Communist Party tighten its grip on free expression in Hong Kong and persecute minority faith groups like the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, rigged an election and then shut off the internet to the entire country to suppress dissidents and protests. FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified to the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee that the Russians have been using social media, as well as “proxies, state media, online journals,” to interfere with our upcoming presidential election.

Human rights and technology

In our digitally connected environment, we can see what is happening around the world in a moment’s notice. We have access to more information than we can even begin to process, which has led to an information overload and often a lack of empathy for the situations we learn about online. As writer Alan Jacobs puts it, “navigating daily life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage.” But even with the rise of fake news, partisanship, and misinformation, those of us in the West also have an inherent trust in the information that we see reported by our news services and from our government agencies. Part of this trust is due to the fact that we have options of where we get our news and information. In addition to this, our government is accountable to us, even if it feels at times that things are out of control.

But for many of the billions of people around the world living under authoritarian regimes, this level of trust is simply nonexistent. Nearly every aspect of their lives is manipulated, controlled, or arranged in ways to reinforce the power of the government and its leaders. Digital authoritarianism is about more than simply not having access to the internet at various times, having histories rewritten, or even state run news agencies.

These fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and grandparents have hopes, dreams, and aspirations just like us, but they experience a world completely different from ours because of the way that their governments treat them as a means to an end or cogs in a wheel, rather than human beings with inherent dignity. These individuals, who we believe are made in God’s very likeness, have gross injustices committed against them and have their most basic human rights of free expression and religious freedom stripped from them, all in order to bolster the power of the few.

The rapid growth of technologies including state-of-the art facial recognition technology, internet filters and controls, digital surveillance, and social media have fueled the authoritarian dreams of many throughout the world who see these advances in technology as new tools to dehumanize and control other people.

Raising awareness

It is far too easy for those of us who live under the relative freedoms of openly democratic systems to read about these human rights abuses in authoritarian regimes and quickly forget as we continue to scroll. But the call of Christians in this digital age is not just to acknowledge that these abuses exist around the world but to seek to raise awareness and push for meaningful changes in whatever ways we can, like the overwhelming bi-partisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week.

These type of changes and statements against the exploitation and unjust treatment of our fellow human beings help send a powerful signal to authoritarian regimes everywhere that the world will not sit idly by as they dehumanize and subjugate their citizens to unspeakable evils under the auspices of national security or unity. And as over 80 evangelical leaders recently stated, “We must condemn the use of any (technology) to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.”

While many of these tools used in digital authoritarianism may be cutting edge and innovative, there is nothing new about the unjust power grabs and dehumanizing effects of authoritarianism. These regimes will stop at nothing to amass power and control. Christians must call out these injustices wherever they are found and proclaim to the world that people created in God’s image are not disposable nor are they a means to unchecked power.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24