Last Friday, the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University hosted Steven Feldstein, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, to discuss the Rise of Digital Repression.
Feldstein, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, defines digital repression as using information through technology by state actors to intimidate individuals or groups not conforming to the state’s rules.
During Friday’s YouTube stream, hosted by Chase Johnson, Feldstein broke repression into five categories including:
- Surveillance techniques and spyware;
- Efforts to censor or take down content;
- The use of disinformation, spreading falsehoods including the use conspiracy theories held by those such as Qanon. This autocratic government is pushing their pro-government agency;
- Shutting down the internet or cutting connectivity to throttle abilities of providers to provide connectivity and,
- They are targeting anti-government users, especially with jail time.
Feldstein says that different nations use different types of internet technology to restrict criticism. He maintains that such restrictions hinder the development of an open and free internet and create difficulties in ensuring free and open access to the internet.
When discussing the role of technology companies in advancing disinformation Feldstein admitted that the shift to Orwellian dynamics is a threat to democracy. However, he was hesitant to prescribe the danger to only platforms. He suggested that a need exists to hold those pushing their narratives to account.
Feldstein suggested that former President Donald Trump lacked the funds and resources to run his presidential election. He opined that social media powered the Trump campaign. Social media made Trump’s victory possible, he proposed.
Feldstein feels that harm comes from those advancing conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine campaigns, and other wild theories in politics. Would such damage have spread without social media? Probably not”, he added.
It took multi-decades to build up conspiracy networks, The Carnegie scholar said. It is not just the networks, he said. Feldstein offered up Rush Limbaugh, Trump himself, Fox network, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson as examples of those adopting and pushing out conspiracy theories at an industrial scale. A quarter of Newsmax viewers believe Qanon, adding that it is shocking how these ideas spread.
Foreign interference in the 2020 election is not the lesson; it was “us,” Feldstein said. The former President’s lies and false claims about election practices, including mail-in-ballots and voter fraud charges, also contributed, he said. It is the environment where facts are something with which people play Feldstein offered. What does it mean, and how do we deal with it he questioned.
“How do we restore democracy at home and push democratic values?” Feldstein asked. He suggested that we need to ask tough questions about dealing with such issues. “We cannot wait years and allow Russian and China and other Autocratic nations to spread anti-democratic values, he said, adding that we must work with Democratic allies and confront
Johnson suggested a need for better civics education and promoted the work of the Frank Church Institute to address issues such as “how do democracies survive in the 21st century.”
Feldstein said we could not underestimate citizens’ capabilities to resist and work to bring about better governing. He added that we are not at the end of history, nor the end of the road. Yet, he worried about increased autocracy around the world. Democracies must think hard and mobilize against such threats, and he said, “Activists are our greatest asset, he remarked.
The world is undergoing a profound set of digital disruptions that are changing the nature of how governments counter dissent and assert control over such disorders, Feldstein offered. Authoritarian regimes have concurrently developed a formidable array of technological capabilities to constrain and repress their citizens, he warned.
Feldstein s book “The Rise of Digital Repression” presents his research from Thailand, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, where he investigated digital tactics, goals, motivations, and drivers. Feldstein highlights how governments pursue digital strategies based on a range of factors: ongoing levels of repression, political leadership, state capacity, and technological development.
This book is a must-read for those wishing to understand better how anti-democratic leaders harness powerful technology to advance their political objectives.