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What is digital authoritarianism?

The use of technology to suppress human rights

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.

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