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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We always assumed technology and the naked transparency of social media would feed people’s taste for freedom and thirst for democracy.

The big picture: Right now, that assumption looks flawed: Technology might actually solidify the standing of despots and provide them with a new way to exert their power. 

Ian Bremmer — political scientist, president and founder of Eurasia Group, and author of "Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism" — recently unpacked this issue in a letter to clients, and he was kind enough to give me permission to share it.

  • The backdrop: Through the Cold War and beyond, "the presumption was that the power of information — people with ideas — were ticking time bombs inside authoritarian regimes": That's why the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, why Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring happened.
  • But as Bremmer was rethinking that, the tipping point came in Syria: The Russian government "provided a few hundred programmers to work with the [Syrian] military, with the intention of surveilling citizen communications through text monitoring and social media and identifying exactly who was a threat to the regime." Today, President Bashar Assad has all but won the war.
  • Why it matters: If "the world's most powerful authoritarian states can effectively marshal technologies that give them control over their people ... that's a much more geopolitically significant trade to keep favored despots in power than arms sales or even colonialism."

Bremmer says changing technology makes him think differently about political stability in China:

  • Advances "in facial recognition technology and big data possessed by [Chinese] authorities has dramatically reduced public demonstrations."
  • When everyone is registered in a public database and the Chinese government "can immediately determine who is an enemy of the people, you get fewer self-proclaimed enemies pretty quickly."

Be smart: Bremmer's takeaway isn't that authoritarianism wins. But more growing economies "will end up economically and politically (and eventually, militarily) aligning" with China — strengthening America's biggest rival.

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Go deeper

Updated 21 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas — Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements.
  3. Politics: Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley tests positive for COVID-19 — Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health."
  4. Economy: Report: World's 10 richest men doubled wealth during pandemicAmerica's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic.
  5. States: America struggles to keep schools open — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers.
  6. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — French parliament passes COVID vaccine passport legislation.
  7. Variant tracker

Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley tests positive for COVID-19

Photo: Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.

State of play: Joint Staff spokesperson Col. Dave Butler said in a statement that Milley — who is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot — is experiencing "very minor symptoms" and is "working remotely and isolating himself."

Momentum builds to ban lawmakers from trading stocks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some progressive Democrats and MAGA Republicans are uniting on a proposal to ban sitting lawmakers from trading individual stocks, although it's unlikely that leadership will bring the bill up for a vote.

Why it matters: Members of Congress have great power to move stock prices, and great financial incentives to do so.