A decade ago, experts heralded the onset of “liberation technology” and described how its tools were empowering a new generation of activists to “expand the horizons of freedom.” But today, a gloomy narrative has eclipsed that optimism, as repressive governments co-opt digital tools to reinforce state control and as disinformation sweeps across liberal democracies.

Rather than emphasizing how social media fuels citizen movements to counter despotic regimes, experts now decry how autocrats manipulate online narratives to delegitimize their critics and consolidate power. As opposed to discussing how new tools enable activists to circumvent internet controls and reach wider audiences, researchers describe how sophisticated digital capabilities allow governments to enact widespread surveillance and implement extensive information controls.

Has the democratic promise of technology been irretrievably lost? The short answer: not yet. But the new era is marked by struggles on multiple fronts.

Around the world, governments are splintering into different factions. On one end, China and Russia push an extreme form of cyber sovereignty that entitles countries to decide how their citizens use the internet, even if those rules abrogate international norms of free expression and free association. On the other end, liberal democracies, led by the United States and Europe, fight to preserve an open, global internet that will protect the ability of individuals to produce, broadcast, and access content as they choose.

While there are serious differences between the United States and Europe when it comes to privacy and the proper regulation of Big Tech, they broadly agree that principles of “openness, freedom, interoperability, security, and resilience” should be the basis for internet governance. Many other countries sit in the middle. Governments in places like Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa show inclinations in both directions and have the capacity to influence broader shifts.

Authoritarian and illiberal leaders have amassed unprecedented capabilities.

Within individual countries, authoritarian and illiberal leaders have amassed unprecedented capabilities to track and monitor dissent, filter unwanted content, spread false narratives, or even shut down information completely. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates use spyware to target independent journalists and human rights activists. Authorities in Argentina, Kenya, Pakistan, and Serbia have contracted with Chinese firms to build surveillance-heavy “safe cities.” State responses to the coronavirus pandemic—in both autocracies and illiberal democracies—have exacerbated concerns about infringements of civil liberties and derogations of privacy.

Even in liberal democracies, there are growing misgivings about the impact of technology.

Even in liberal democracies, there are growing misgivings about the impact of technology, particularly the harmful effects of social media and expanding digital surveillance. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been accused of fundamentally damaging political discourse by amplifying misinformation and facilitating hate speech. Meanwhile, democracies have embraced an array of sophisticated surveillance tactics to police borders, apprehend suspects, and predict criminal behavior—frequently lacking oversight or safeguards.

And yet there remains cause for hope. In Armenia and Sudan, activists rallied supporters online in movements that ended two long-standing repressive regimes. Open source digital investigations overseen by organizations like Bellingcat, UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, and Amnesty International’s Citizen Evidence Lab have identified the perpetrators of the 2014 downing of Malaysian airliner MH17, documented state-incited hate speech in Myanmar, and revealed how Iraqi security forces deployed lethal tear gas grenades against unarmed protestors—critical first steps toward holding governments accountable.

What these trends indicate is that the political impact of digital technology is not foretold. It remains a contested arena with authoritarians bent on preserving power, liberal democracies struggling to balance political freedoms with surveillance interests and disinformation concerns, and citizen activists devising creative solutions to counter a rising tide of repression.

  • Steven Feldstein