Why Authoritarian Regimes Love Social Media and Smart Phones?

Peter Ramage*

Sections of the media have been reeling recently with the revelations that Ukrainian authorities have been using technology to identify noncompliant citizens in the riots in Kiev. A text message has been sent to people whose phones could be located near clashes between protestors and riot police. It read, “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Much has been made of the Orwellian overtones of this message. However, the most worrying thing about this development is that, at worst, it represents the next step in a long history of repressive regimes mobilising developing technologies to quash dissent.

The use of ‘advanced’ technology to suppress dissent can be seen as far back as Britain’s Licensing of the Press Act of 1662, specifically targeted at “frequent Abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed Books and Pamphlets” or German Volksempfänger radios, designed only to receive those messages pre-approved by Goebbels. However, since the widespread adoption of the internet, and more recently the smartphone, repressive authorities have increasingly had the means not just to control the message, but to stymie any activists trying to promote one.

One striking example of how far this power has come occurred following the 2009 election in Iran. Protests erupted after opposition leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi claimed that the contest had been rigged. At the time, many reports focused on protestors’ use of Twitter and Facebook to organise demonstrations. Despite its highly visible role, it seems likely that the role of Twitter, at least, was overstated in this context. During the demonstrations foreign media was starved of traditional sources, and so it was through this new technological lens that the West gained much of its insight. The visibility of Twitter in the media led to an overstatement of its role in a country of over 70 million, where less than 20,000 were registered on Twitter. However, paralleling its ability to support protestors, this new suite of technology also has the ability to undermine movements for dissent.

While the Iranian government tried to fight the new technology with the blunt instrument seen so often since – a wholesale internet shut down – they also engaged digital capabilities for their own ends. Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, while creating a platform for activists to mobilise, also offer unmatched opportunities for open-source intelligence gathering. The regime could easily map out the structure of activist groups by following the patterns of friends and likes, follows and re-tweets. This was a process which might have taken months using more traditional means. Moreover, the proliferation of camera phones, which provided such evocative pictures to the Western media, also gave authorities much greater ability to identify ringleaders and individual protestors. They achieved this both with sophisticated facial recognition software as well as by asking members of the public to identify people whose pictures were posted in newspapers.

The ubiquity of camera phones, and their ability to affect surveillance, was seen even more starkly following the Boston Marathon Bombings in April 2013. Hordes of newly minted ‘digital detectives’ rushed to forums such as reddit and 4chan to pore over thousands of images and videos taken by witnesses, in an attempt to identify the suspects. While the anarchic, leaderless nature of this search led to misidentifications and finger-pointing, users still had the resources to assess the actions of almost everyone present. It is easy to see the extensive surveillance applications of such new technologies.

In his book, The Net Delusion, Belarusian political scientist Evgeny Morozov is a strong opponent of what he calls “iPod Liberalism” a technological-determinist[1] notion that increased connectivity will necessarily cause dictatorships to crumble. In fact, he sees the internet offering increasing opportunity for repressive regimes to corral opinion, rather than censor it; distract citizens, rather than engage them; and listen to their private phone calls, rather than their public discourse.

In this context, is it any surprise that Ukraine’s government has made use of the increased GPS capabilities of modern smartphones to track protestors in real-time? It is true that such actions smack of totalitarianism. While we may condemn Ukrainian authorities, it would perhaps be remiss to overlook the tools we have embraced which enable government repression. By adopting devices and services without thinking of the consequences, we have in part reaped a whirlwind of our own creation. When we carry a device which constantly tracks our location, stores our communication and catalogues the minutiae of our day to day life, is it really a surprise that the power of this technology can be turned against us?

*Peter is based in New Zealand and holds a Masters degree in Political Studies. He is most interested in Electoral Systems, Authoritarian use of New Media and Asia-Pacific relations.He established the Grafton Project, A New Zealand based Policy focused think- tank/blog. 

[1] Technological determinism is the idea that a society’s social and cultural landscape is shaped primarily by the development of technology. It suggests that technology itself, rather than the way it is used, or percieved has the ability to transform society. In the context of this article it refers to the idea that repressive countries, merely by adopting the technologies present in liberal democracies (the internet, mobile phones, etc.), will become less repressive as the technology itself exerts a liberalising influence. Critics suggest that this approach is overly reductionist – there’s more to making a liberal democracies than technology – and that repressive regimes are likely to co-opt new technologies to maintain the status quo e.g. China’s use of the ’50 Cent Party’ of state sanctioned bloggers to manage public discourse.

1 reply »

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