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.
Bengisu Gulsen Kosarhan wrote an interesting and thought-provoking article about digital authoritarianism. According to the author, digital authoritarianism has become a prominent concern in the modern world, with tactics to control our daily decisions and life. The author claims that two types of tactics are used in digital authoritarianism: tools of repression/destruction and tools that are used for acquiring greater power. The author mainly focuses on the tools of repression, naming surveillance, cyber–attacks, censorship, and electoral manipulation as examples.
I agree with many of the points made by the author, especially in the examples regarding censorship and electoral manipulation. Indeed, the number of people using digital spaces to voice their opinion and public discourse is increasing, and this digital space can become extremely censored, which goes against the ideas of free speech. The author gives the example of Turkey’s new digital law and how it is censoring digital spaces. In this section, I would have further added that AI can also negatively influence and pose a threat to institutional forbearance by enabling institutions to monitor this censorship and exercise political power through these data collection trends by demoralizing their opponents and civil leaders, leading to a loss of privacy and individual rights, which can lead to the public losing faith in their governmental system.
The rise of digital technologies has enabled authoritarian governments to exert greater control over their citizens and manipulate information, as the author argued in the examples of Turkey and China. While this is a concern that is expressed well in this article, I would argue that AI can also bring benefits to democracy. The article does not discuss the fact that digital tools have empowered citizens around the world. Digital media has played a crucial role in mobilizing mass protests and organizing civil society groups. Robert A. Dahl in “Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition” mentions how important the existence of effective communication between the people and political leaders is to make sure that the needs of the people are met. Additionally, civil society groups also play a crucial role since organized interests can help representation in the political process. Digital media provides rapid transmission of information on planned events and political happenings.
The article also does not mention that digital authoritarianism is not a brand-new phenomenon. Authoritarian regimes have always sought to control information and restrict freedom of expression. The internet and digital tools have simply provided a new means for authoritarian governments to do so as digital tools developed over the years. However, it is important to recognize that digital tools have also made it easier for citizens to circumvent censorship and access information. This is evident in the rise of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other tools that enable people to access restricted content and have been used to promote democracy and human rights. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have enabled activists around the world to raise awareness of human rights abuses and mobilize public opinion. Digital tools have also made it easier for journalists to investigate corruption and hold governments accountable. Moreover, it is important to consider the role of international organizations and civil society in promoting democracy and human rights. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch use digital tools to raise awareness of human rights abuses and hold governments accountable.
The article also mentioned digital authoritarianism that was used in democratic governments, with examples given in the Brexit campaign and the 2016 US elections. I agree that fair elections were made more difficult by misleading campaign information and online advertisements. However, I would have also considered the role of democratic governments and private companies in promoting digital freedom, which is an integral piece in preventing digital authoritarianism. Democratic governments must protect the rights of their citizens online and ensure that digital tools are not misused to restrict freedom of expression. Private companies also have a responsibility to respect human rights and prevent their tools from being misused.
While digital authoritarianism is a real concern, it is important to recognize that AI can also bring democratic benefits if used in a disciplined manner. Digital tools have empowered citizens around the world and have been used to promote democracy and human rights. It is crucial for democracy to use digital tools to promote freedom and prevent misuse through legislature and new laws, just as the author mentioned that there should be regulations in place. By acknowledging the broader context and considering the role of various factors in play, we can work towards promoting digital freedom and preventing digital authoritarianism from spreading further.
Robert. A Dahl (1971), Polyarchy; Participation and Opposition
Kosarhan, B. (2023, January 5). A New World Order? Digital Authoritarianism. Democratic Erosion. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2023/01/05/a-new-world-order-digital-authoritarianism/
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (n.d.). A Discussion of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die. Department of Political Science. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.polisci.washington.edu/sites/polisci/files/documents/news/discussion_of_steven_levitsky_and_daniel_ziblatts_how_democracies_die.pdf
Bengisu, thank you for speaking on such a modern yet massively overlooked topic– how artificial intelligence and other digital tools have been employed in the arsenals of both social media companies and governments to enforce their rules and regulations. You refer to this term as digital authoritarianism and considering the fact that it is used to curb dissent and enforce conformity, I think that is a very apt choice. In this article you chilling yet accurately note the fact that with the exponential rise of digital authoritarianism, “core values of democracy are traded for the efficiency of digital technologies.” As you mention, China and other authoritarian regimes have fully embraced this technology to process threats to their power and prosecute the unlucky perpetrators. Through a combination of facial recognition software and social media surveillance, they have been able to regulate and catalog criticisms levied against them. Potentially more concerning is your mention of how “surveillance can also be used to detect protestors and used [in a] number of countries that are even deemed democratic, such as United States and Canada.” It is definitely worth considering the ability of artificial intelligence and modern technology to serve as media through which democratic backsliding can occur. This situation calls to mind the longstanding question over whether people and institutions should promote liberty or preserve security. These two “opposing” stances both protect some aspects of liberal democracy while eroding others, however, I believe it is important to err with freedom.
Inspired by Enlightenment ideals and the concept of inalienable rights, many often take the side of liberty being preferred to security. In fact, this belief in an absolute right to liberty, including freedom of expression and thought, is frequently cited as paramount to democratic development and the emergence of liberal values. According to Robert Dahl, a prominent political theorist, democracies rely on citizens being able to “1. Formulate preferences … 2. Signify preferences … 3. Have preferences weighted equally in conduct of government” (Dahl, 1972, p. 3).* He asserts that an ability to have one’s own beliefs and express them free of repercussions is crucial to fostering democratic discourse and as a result, plays a key role in the solidification and preservation of a democracy. As you note, “Protesting becomes much harder under surveillance and freedom of assembly and protest are under attack against.” Another crucial consideration is that by censoring or shutting out certain viewpoints, even if for good cause such as limiting the spread of populism, we actually harm liberal democracy. According to Sarah DeLange, a lack of toleration of other viewpoints can actually lead to even more radical views and further polarization.** This in turn can cause democratic ideals of mutual toleration to erode, further damaging democracy as a whole. Overall, it is very difficult to discern a line between the use of technological tools to ensure “safety” and the employment of those same tools to enforce censorship and suppress dissent. As you perfectly summarize, “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.”
An argument can also be made in favor of preferring security of the majority over untethered freedom of the individual. Notably, the United States Supreme Court has taken this stance and placed limits on speech before in cases such as Schenck v. United States*** and Roth v. United States****. In both of these, the good of the public was prioritized over the rights of the individual to fully express their beliefs or creative expression. As such, there is a valid argument to be made that countries, whether China or the United States, are at least attempting to use these tools for the good of the public. By using facial recognition software for example, authorities could more easily capture a dangerous criminal before they commit another crime. You reference this idea that, “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,” On social media platforms, they could help curb the spread of disinformation. This allows them to curb the aspirations of populists and aspiring autocrats who might use modern technology to convince the public that other parties and groups have conspired against the public. To this extent, tools like artificial intelligence may prove useful in the fight against democratic backsliding. However, it remains difficult to figure out exactly where rights to expression, if anywhere, should or could be regulated and limited. For this reason, I agree with your argument that there must be policies put in place to limit the extent to which digital authoritarianism can reign and regulate private lives.
* – Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
** – Sarah DeLange, “New Alliances: Why Mainstream Parties Govern with Radical Right- Wing Populist Parties,” Political Studies, Vol 60, 2012.
*** – Schenck v United States (https://www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/249us47)
**** – Roth v United States (https://www.oyez.org/cases/1956/582)
Hey Bengisu, I was aware of the risks of AI but I haven’t connected all of the dots. This blog post did a great job at showing multiple sides of how AI could enhance authoritarianism. We have already seen cases of surveillance and election manipulation in the US. During the Rittenhouse case we saw drone footage being used as evidence. While this was useful evidence it was highly concerning to know that the US government was recording protests with drones. We also saw election manipulation on social media beyond censorship. It was stated that many social media accounts were fake and had a fake accounts creating interactions. This creates a perception that certain ideas are more popular than they actually are and can ship public perception.
Most of these effects of AI are focused on modern AI or AI in the near future. I would like to add an additional thought on this. We have traditionally thought of AI as very analytical. Computers were know to be better at humans at chess. That was all that we thought of computer intelligence. With the advent of Chat GPT we have a growth of computer generated art and literature. I believe in the future that AI will create new theories and ideas. Who knows whether this will be beneficial or not. There is a possibility that this will extend into politics and public policy. Should there be additional legislation that would limit AI’s ability to be creative?