Stories

How tech fuels authoritarians

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.