March 01, 2020

Digital Repression in Autocracies

By Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Joseph Wright

Repression is a hallmark feature of authoritarian rule. It raises the costs of disloyalty and makes it more difficult for groups to mobilize against the regime (Wintrobe, 1998). Though dictatorships vary markedly in the extent to which they rely on repression, all regimes use it to some degree (Frantz and Kendall-Taylor, 2014). This reality of authoritarian politics has not changed over time. What has changed, however, are the tools available to autocratic governments to carry out such repression (Xu, 2019).

With the advent of new technologies, dictatorships can censor and filter the Internet to prohibit the spread of unfavorable information, as exemplified by the Chinese regime’s “Great Firewall.” They can also use bot-driven information-distortion campaigns on social media to cloud information channels with noise and confuse citizens, a tactic at which the Russian government is particularly adept. And they can use artificial intelligence (AI) to surveil their citizens, making it easy to identify, monitor, and target those who oppose them. Saudi Arabia, for example, reportedly hacks into the online accounts of its dissidents using commercially available surveillance technology. In other words, opportunities for leveraging new technologies to carry out repression in new ways – what we refer to as digital repression – are vast.

Read the full paper from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute.

  1. See “The Great Firewall of China,”’ Bloomberg News, 05 November 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/great-firewall-of-china (accessed 24 February 2020).
  2. “How Russia and Other Foreign Actors Sow Disinformation in Elections,” National Public Radio, 21 February 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/02/21/808275155/how-russia-and-other-foreign-actors-sow-disinformation-in-elections (accessed 24 February 2020).
  3. “Saudi Arabia: Change Comes with Punishing Cost”, Human Rights Watch, 04 November 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/04/saudi-arabia-change-comes-punishing-cost (accessed 24 February 2020).
  • Commentary
    • Inkstick
    • May 4, 2022
    Can Macron Play Nice with Other Europeans?

    To fully realize his ambitions for the bloc during his second term, macron will need to take greater care to forge consensus across eu member states, rather than repeating his...

    By Nicholas Lokker

  • Podcast
    • April 21, 2022
    Macron vs. Le Pen Redux, with Célia Belin and Ben Haddad

    What can we expect from the final round of the French presidential election? The possibility of a Le Pen presidency poses major concerns for the future of the European Union a...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Célia Belin & Benjamin Haddad

  • Podcast
    • April 11, 2022
    Inching Closer Toward NATO with Mika Aaltola and Anna Wieslander

    Will Finland and Sweden join NATO? Since Russia launched its unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine in late February, European political and security dynamics have chang...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Mika Aaltola & Anna Wieslander

  • Podcast
    • April 6, 2022
    Orbán’s Grip On Power with Dan Kelemen

    What does Viktor Orbán’s win in Hungary mean for the future of Europe? On April 3rd, voters in Hungary went to the polls for national parliamentary elections. Despite efforts ...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend & Dan Kelemen

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia