What is new about digital repression? This is what I have been asked frequently ever since presenting the first findings of my research on digital threats against exiled activists from authoritarian countries. Prompting further reflection on this question, Jennifer Earl, Thomas V. Maher and Jennifer Pan, in their synthetic review, organize the different strands of scholarship on the repressive use of digital tools and connect them to research on more traditional forms of repression.
In their distinction of different perpetrators, the authors accurately highlight the need to focus on private actors. Their role certainly cannot be underestimated given the outstanding share of companies, mercenaries, trolls and even automated bots in the distortion of online debates and silencing of critical voices. The surveillance industry, in particular, enables illiberal powerholders across the globe to surreptitiously infiltrate the most secured devices of their opponents. And some companies even strike back against those trying to bring public scrutiny into their opaque business transactions.
What I find exceptional about digital repression, however, are its spatial reach and intense effects on targets. Digital technologies have given repressive regimes new capacities to extend their domestic political controls across distances and borders. Transnational repression by authoritarian regimes certainly existed before, as the murder of Leon Trotsky by Soviet agents in Mexico shows. But digital tools allow for monitoring, suppressing and punishing political activity abroad on a much larger scale. With the help of surveillance and other digital threats, regime agents reach far into foreign territory, invading the lives of targeted exiles wherever they are.
These spatial dynamics of digital repression are even more complex when monitoring and surveillance are coupled with threats against exiles’ loved-ones in the home country. In our recent paper, Dana Moss, Gillian Kennedy and I show how ‘proxy punishment’ combines the collection of open-source intelligence with the age-old method of collective retribution. Once agents discover an activist’s media interview or social media campaign, they go about harassing her parents. In highly repressive contexts like Syria or Iran, a simple visit for ‘a cup of tea’ will send a strong signal. Chinese agents have even called diaspora members via WhatsApp and Skype from their parents’ homes as a means of intimidation. Proxy punishment (or ‘coercion by proxy’) comes in different forms that range in severity from physical violence and incarceration to travel bans and verbal threats. It keeps coercion, overt and covert, within the territorial borders of the regime to target those who remain out of reach.
Even more so than traditional methods, digital repression works along people’s social relations. Hacking attacks rarely target one individual alone but rather use the ties among activists to unravel entire groups and networks. Access to the confidential information of one person allows attackers to uncover new links and contacts, and to swiftly expand their efforts. Perpetrators try to infiltrate the accounts of low-profile activists and inexperienced users in order to reach more valuable targets. In transnational activist networks which span across multiple countries and communities, held together by digital communication, a successful attack against the weakest link could lead to severe consequences for all involved. Social ties – an essential resource for activists and movements – are turned into a vulnerability as the practices of digital repression spread uncertainty, mistrust and fear.
Because digital communication occupies such a central place in people’s lives and they maintain such intimate relationships with their devices, the effects of digital repression are immediate, disturbing and often very personal. The victims of social media harassment, intrusive hacking or the leaking of private information report of mental stress, paranoia and social isolation. When investigating the consequences of digital repression, therefore, research needs to pay more attention to its psychosocial impacts. Potential targets’ uncertainty about ongoing surveillance operations and the actual technical capabilities of adversaries or their doubts about how to securely communicate may increase feelings of exhaustion, helplessness and disengagement. ‘Emotional attrition’ plays an important role in the functioning of repression and the ways those exposed to it perceive their risks and opportunities.
My work evidently focuses on well-entrenched authoritarian regimes: the ‘usual suspects’ behind repression. Yet, as scholarship on extraterritorial authoritarian rule has shown, these regimes do not sit isolated in their walled-off territories. Enabled by private platforms, companies and other non-state actors, the authoritarian silencing across borders has developed in par with the commodification of capabilities for surveillance, data gathering and influence operations. It is also closely entangled with the security practices of Western democracies that heavily rely on digital technologies for their migration regimes or anti-terror policies, among others.
Consequently, I concur with the authors’ suggestion to widen our gaze in order to capture the full scope of digital repression and information controls, including in democracies. But even if “democracies engage in almost all forms of digital repression too”, the political effects of their actions might differ. When police in the United States or Europe shut down local networks or preemptively monitor key activists to suppress protests, their actions most certainly curtail the fundamental rights of the targeted individuals. But are they also authoritarian?
Here, Marlies Glasius’ distinction between illiberal and authoritarian practices provides helpful orientation. Whereas illiberal practices infringe on the autonomy and dignity of the person, authoritarian practices sabotage accountability “by means of secrecy, disinformation and disabling voice” (p. 517). The first are a human rights problem, the latter a threat to democracy. Applying her concept to the digital sphere, we argued that the data collection under the NSA surveillance program constituted primarily an illiberal practice as it violated the privacy of individuals on a massive scale. However, the US government’s patterned secrecy and misinformation on the remits of the program could actually be seen an authoritarian practice because they undermined accountability by blocking the information flow from powerholders to the people. The two types of practices then overlapped in the attempts to interfere in the reporting on the Snowden files, violating the journalists’ individual right to freedom of expression (illiberal) while disabling the public to ask critical questions (authoritarian).
Distinguishing the not only the methods and actors involved, but also the type of harm caused by digital repression seems particularly important in a time of tremendous unease about the ways in which digital technologies are used to control and manipulate speech and behavior. Scholars of repression have an important role to play in dissecting rights violations and threats to democratic politics.