Nothing seemed to prove these ideas more than the Arab Spring of 2011-2012, when people across North Africa and the Middle East used social media to organize protests that brought down dictators who had held power for decades.
Recently, though, the
negative consequences of the digital revolution have become more apparent. Online and street activism during the Arab Spring took down strongmen, but didn’t lead to democracy. In open societies, the same social networks that have brought billions of people together have also undermined trust in traditional news sources, isolated people inside ideological “echo chambers,” and allowed political operatives and governments to spread disinformation, interfere in elections, and inflame hatred of ethnic minorities and political opponents.
In India and Myanmar, for example, false and
inflammatory messages spreading on social media have been blamed for inciting lynchings and even for helping to fuel genocide.
But while these technologies pose
challenges for democracy, many authoritarian governments have become more skilled at controlling and manipulating digital space to their advantage. In China, 800 million internet users access the internet only from behind the “Great Firewall,” which blocks foreign websites that could undermine the Communist Party’s grip on power. The country’s censorship system stops information that could undermine public order or government legitimacy before it has a chance to go viral.
Outside China, a
growing number of governments have become skilled at cutting off internet access to prevent protesters from organizing during periods of social unrest: In Cameroon, the government led by a French-speaking majority has used internet blackouts to quell protests in the country’s English-speaking regions. In India, local authorities routinely cut off online access in response to political turmoil.
In the coming years, the combination of high-speed data networks, intelligent computers, and billions of internet-connected devices will help people live longer, healthier, more productive lives – but will the next phase of the digital revolution favor authoritarian governments over democracies?
It’s early to say but there are good reasons to think so. Technologies like facial and voice recognition, and the coming explosion in the number of internet-connected personal and household devices will produce a huge amount of data about the locations, activities, and habits of a country’s citizens. Governments that can collect, understand, and use this information to influence how their people behave will gain a powerful new tool for social control.
Make no mistake – the next phase of the technology revolution will leave billions of people better off. The combination of high-speed data networks, intelligent computers, and billions of internet-connected devices will help people live longer, healthier, more productive lives.
For decades, political scientists have assumed that oppressive governments would have to grant their citizens more freedoms to for their economies to grow, and deliver better living standards. But if authoritarian regimes can harness the next wave of digital technology to make better decisions and improve their citizens’ economic wellbeing, they may never have to reform politically – and could even gain a strategic advantage if democracies continue to struggle with digital disruption.