Kate Crawford in her book Atlas of AI argues that AI “grew on the battlefield where it was used to detect enemies, strange objects and maintain strategic control”. The technology to which we created for military usage therefore inherently used for surveillance, control, and manipulation; and we are now living in a world that those same technologies are in the hands of five years old as well as state leaders and powerful multinational tech companies. It is everywhere, surrounding every aspect of our life, from what we eat, to read, to where we go. AI affects every decision we make consciously or unconsciously, and it is impossible to not think its consequences on political level since the main purpose of this technology is already providing consistency of vision at the state level. Therefore, I argue that concentration of such power in the hands of governments affects the spread of authoritarianism all around us, giving more power to already authoritarian states, gives opportunity to illiberal democracies to enhance their authoritarian aspects and even used in full-fledged democracies to decrease the political culture of said countries, thus creating an image of anxiety and makes us wonder what will happen to the future of democracy in an era of ever-growing digital authoritarianism?
A common definition given for the digital authoritarianism is that the use of digital technologies to surveil, repress and manipulate, domestic and foreign populations are enhanced by the authoritarian regimes both in the public and private realm of life. There are two types of tactics that are used from digital authoritarians: Tools that are used for repression and destruction and tools that are used for acquiring great power. In this blog I will focus on the first set of tools; repression and destruction which are surveillance, cyber-attacks and espionage, censorship and social and electoral manipulation.
The numbers of digital authoritarian states are increasingly growing especially, with the help of physical and online surveillance that happens with the usage of AI. This type of surveillance creates negative consequences for people living under the control of these states and makes us wonder if things will turn out the way George Orwell predicted in his famous dystopian book ‘1984’? Physical surveillance happens through the millions of cameras that are placed all around the world, making it impossible for us to escape their gaze. And now with the AI, we have the means of going through those footages by Facial Recognition, Emotion recognition and Remote Biometric Identification. The technology can also be used to determine suspicious behavior and predict future crimes and allocate resources to regions where the prediction of crime is very high. China especially uses physical surveillance to create a social credit system to track its citizens’ movements at all time and shape their behaviors according to what government believes to be the best course. This inhibits the freedom of choice that is inherent to the fabric of democracies. China also uses this technology to especially against marginalized groups such as Uyghur Muslims. They track their movements for suspicious behavior and uses this technology to police the community and even creates internment camps for their suspects. Which is an outright human rights issue for the Uyghurs. Physical surveillance can also be used to detect protestors and used number of countries that are even deemed democratic, such as United States and Canada. Protesting becomes much harder under surveillance and freedom of assembly and protest are under attack against.
Our online presence is another means for surveillance. What we share in social media, what we search in Google, and our live location at any time are collected as data and are used by governments to control us. Making, even the private realm of our lives unfree and open to control. Our social media posts can be used against us as means to arrest, they are subject to investigation in our visa appointments and can be used as justification for us not getting it, and again our location information help governments to track us wherever we go. Further, worsening the consequences of AI and surveillance for our freedom.
Cyber-attacks and espionage
These tools are usually used by authoritarian regimes to get economic and political advantage over other countries. They use hacking, spyware, distributed-denial-of-service attacks, and network intrusions. Especially Iran and North-Korea developed sophisticated capabilities to conduct such operations. Our personal data is also under attack with these methods. One of the example we can give for such attack is the Cambridge Analytica scandal that marked the 2016 US presidential elections. With the help from Russian data scientist, Cambridge Analytica thorough Facebook harvested up to 86 million users personal data for the company to create customized political advertisement. This move is clearly needed for political advantage to gain political advantage in the international arena. These moves targets sovereignty of the states as well as targeting the security of its citizens, creating an environment for authoritarian states to acquire more power and influence within international politics further puts the fate of the democracies in a fragile position.
Censorship and Electoral Manipulation
We are now living in an era where even authoritarian states needs a legitimation that they gain from elections. Especially in electoral and competitive authoritarian regimes, the result of said elections are detrimental to both incumbents and opposition. Informed citizens making objective decisions for ballots is one of the main principles of being a democracy. However, this principle is increasingly under threat in the age of digital technologies. In an era where public discourse and arena is moving to digital space, the protection of those said spaces becomes very important for public deliberation. However, in an increasing number of countries we see multiple censorship laws for social public contestation. In Turkey, recently as a country who is in an election year, the government passed a new law for digital spaces where they increase the surveillance and criminal consequences of people who were detected using “unpatriotic” speech against the incumbency and the state. This is a serious attack on free speech and public deliberation.
The data that are collected are not only used to monitor and punish us but as a means for manipulation as well, especially in the times of an election. Informed masses participating in fair elections are the base point for democracy. However, now more than ever it is very hard for us to make decisions without any manipulation. Filtering on Facebook can make it hard for people to see ideas other than their own, and they can form extremely radical viewpoints. Fragmented realities based on false information deepens the existing cleavages within the society and hinders the mobilization of the people. In addition to filtering, the use of deep fakes and bots to manipulate people by the data they provide is another challenge AI poses to the integrity of democracy. The 2016 US elections, as well as the Brexit referendum manipulations from Cambridge Analytica, are only two examples of many more, where fair elections are harder to achieve in a digitalized world where perception control is a reality both from other authoritarian regimes as well as from our government. Creating a double-edged sword for people to be manipulated.
Democracy had a good run while the spread of Western liberal ideas led to decentralized governments in the past century. These governments focused on protecting the free flow of information and the privacy of the people. However, what does democracy’s faith in a centralized model of government look like in an increasingly AI-empowered world? After all, AI has an insatiable need for massive amounts of data and centralized information to fuel its algorithms. As we can see in the example of current China and its relationship with AI, this can lead to a society where core values of democracy are traded for the efficiency of digital technologies. Whether democracy can prevail in an era of digital authoritarianism is well out of scope for this piece, but I believe that regardless of what will happen to the regime there needs to be regulations and protections for the people and it needs to come quickly.
 Kate Crawford, Atlas of AI, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.