In Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Robert Dahl posits “three necessary conditions for a democracy” . Underlying all three conditions is the availability of “alternative sources of information” . For this reason, it seemed – early in the information revolution – that new technology would catalyze the spread and improve the strength of democracy. And yet, as the information age dawned, it became clear that the same technology could be used to spread pervasive misinformation and to create a chilling effect on political expression. In this way, technology can break through with truths and disseminate lies, can organize protests and chill opposition. This dynamic is on full display in Israel, a democracy with a leading high-technology sector.
In 2016, 5 corruption cases revealed that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who was simultaneously the Minister of Communications – had maneuvered to ease regulations on two media organizations in exchange for favorable coverage. In response to these findings, Israelis used the internet to organize protests that lasted for months and attracted tens of thousands of people. Meanwhile, Netanyahu called these protesters “anarchists,” fanned the flames of anti-protester violence, and dismissed the protesters and his opposition as illegitimate and un-Israeli. In so doing, Netanyahu displayed “denial of the legitimacy of political opponents [and] toleration or encouragement of violence,” two of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s key indicators of authoritarian behavior . Netanyahu also put in place new lockdowns and curfews meant to curb these peaceful protests, a clear violation of civil rights. In response, the protesters tweeted out peaceful videos and photos and organized around the measures that were designed to curb protests. The results were even larger protests that ultimately played a role in Netanyahu’s ouster. In this way, technology seems to have played a rather significant role in fighting democratic erosion. As those who believed that technology would support democracy imagined, protesters used social media to organize, counter government misinformation, and fight erosive measures.
However, recent reporting in Israel’s Calcalist newspaper sheds light on the harm to democracy that technology can do in the hands of nefarious actors. Netanyahu is such a nefarious would-be autocrat. His moves to fuse the power of Prime Minister and Minister of Communications represent executive aggrandizement, and his weakening of the independent media constitutes an essential part of democratic erosion. Additionally, Netanyahu has rejected the democratic rules of the game by casting doubt on the legitimacy of free and fair elections; denied the legitimacy of political opponents; encouraged violence; and appeared ready to curtail civil liberties. In his 15 years as Prime Minister, Netanyahu displayed all four of the key indicators of authoritarian behavior. As a would-be autocrat, then, Netanyahu’s erosive actions using technology action can shed light on how eroders may use technology and the danger such use presents.
As the Calcalist article reveals, the Israeli government used the cutting-edge Pegasus spyware to spy on protest leaders. Pegasus uses a vulnerability of which the phone’s manufacturer was unaware ex-ante to gain complete control over a phone without its user doing anything; it is essentially undetectable. As one researcher described it, Pegasus is “the most invasive [and] advanced spyware imaginable.” While Pegasus was intended to infiltrate terrorist groups, it – perhaps unsurprisingly – has found its way to governments that use it to spy on citizens. In Israel, Netanyahu’s government used Pegasus to spy on protest leaders. In one instance, a married protest leader was found “on the gay dating app Grindr and followed as he went on dates — information that was to be leveraged in future police interrogations,” which appears emblematic of the Netanyahu government’s use of this technology. That is, the Netanyahu government used Pegasus not to investigate or prevent a crime but to blackmail and coerce political opponents.
Therein lies the fundamental danger to democracy that technology represents. The fact that this software is so invasive not only makes planning protests secretly much more difficult but also dramatically increases the price of protesting. After all, the government has shown its willingness to hack into protesters’ phones to blackmail them. Because there is essentially nothing protesters can do to defend themselves, such action feels inevitable to protesters. The combination of the risk of public disclosure of private information and the feeling of the inevitability of this outcome makes protesting an entirely undesirable proposition. And for backsliders, technology like this, thus, represents a potent tool. After all, what is described above is a tool that governments need not even use to make protesting much more difficult; indeed, Pegasus’ existence alone represents a threat to would-be protesters.
In analyzing the use of Pegasus spyware in Israel, technology’s ability to invade privacy – and governments’ subsequent ability to use that to curb opposition – becomes clear. More than the spread of misinformation or even the incitement of violence, this is the biggest threat that technology presents to democracy. As the protesters in Israel showed, citizens can fight misinformation; they can quell threats of violence. But there is simply nothing protesters can do against a tool like Pegasus – which feels omnipresent and destructive even when it is not being used. This is what makes technology so potent and dangerous a tool for would-be autocrats; it advances and evolves so quickly that the “good guys” cannot stay in front of eroders. All of which is to say that, for all of technology’s ability to aid in the organization of opposition and supply alternative sources of information, it is ultimately a more effective tool in eroding democracy than defending it. Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).  Ibid.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).