Authoritarian Governments on the Internet

From Russia to Thailand, China to the Middle East, all governments have a stake in the internet. We investigate.

The German philosopher Max Weber defines the state as the only entity in a country with the legitimate monopoly over violence. In today’s digital age, social media lends itself to state propaganda to enhance this legitimacy. And by conceding small amounts of liberty, the government is able to gain approval for being ‘progressive’.

Social media powers all political forces, not just the forces we like. Despite efforts to encourage the growth of pro-democratic groups online, research from Egypt, Palestine and Russia suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and groups of Russian nationalists and fascists are among the most active users of blogs and social media.

Blind support for promoting blogging and social networking may have very unpleasant and unexpected consequences. Though governments may have lost some power to internet-based communication channels that empower people, authoritarian regimes have benefited from those same mediums in other ways. The internet has made it more effective and cheaper to spread state propaganda and gain information about public opinion.

Only the Appearance of Openness

For some authoritarian governments, new media is used to give the appearance of openness and legitimacy. According to Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, “In Russia, the government befriends new media entrepreneurs who spin online conversation in the government's favour. The Chinese, have created a "50 cent party" composed of thousands of people across the country who get paid 50 cents for each comment they leave online.”

Now instead of employing hundreds of people to read published material, rulers can automate the process and search for keywords on the internet. An example is the Beijing-based TRS Information Technology, a search technology and text-mining company that helps China control public opinion by using keyword searches. The Chinese police use the technology to focus attention on certain groups of people, such as university student forums.

In Thailand the military almost has control over traditional and new media. Propaganda included a PBS channel 30-minute talk show on the former government's disastrous policies and how the junta had made it a priority to secure funds to pay farmers. The message of military benevolence has been reinforced with looped footage on the morning news of farmers emerging from banks counting fistfuls of notes, people holding up “We love the army” stickers, and encouraging the people to take selfies with soldiers stationed around the capital.

Monitoring Activism and Stalking People

study by the Mediterranean Council for Intelligence suggests that social media is “the new cutting edge in open-source tactical intelligence collection”. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other social networking platforms are increasingly viewed by intelligence agencies as invaluable channels of information acquisition. 

The above-mentioned study is partly based on the Arab Spring protests that started in late 2010. The widespread protests across the Middle East may have prompted the US government to begin developing guidelines for collecting intelligence from social media networks. There are also reports that suggest social media is used for propaganda, including the creation of fake identities in support of covert operations.

Babak Rahimi a professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California, wrote about the Iranian elections in 2000: despite blocking a number of dissident websites ahead of the presidential election, Iranian authorities unblocked the popular social networking site Facebook.

Why would the state unblock Facebook while limiting access to other websites? To encourage younger people to vote, thereby boosting electoral participation and signalling state legitimacy could be one reason. But Rahimi thinks that it was to identify dissenters. "By unblocking Facebook and creating a false sense of open and fair elections, the intelligence services are able to monitor the activities of dissidents who may feel more comfortable to express their views on Facebook.”

Nathan Freitas, professor at New York University, works on developing technology for protests. He says that there are numerous stories of Chinese, Tibetan and other activists being monitored via Skype, Yahoo! email and other online tools. However, he says, "It's a cat and mouse thing, staying one step ahead." Activists need to stay ahead of a government's technical capabilities.

Cases of how much social media a government can actually control differ from country to country. In the case of China and its ambitious business goals, it can't block as much of the internet as countries with more humble international goals.

Social Media is the New Propaganda Poster

Thailand is a pertinent case. The military leaders aren’t intent on shutting down social media sites altogether but are using the popular platforms to further an already robust propaganda campaign.

Reuters reports that army control of the country's traditional media is Big Brother-like in scope and absurdism. The Public Health Ministry warned Thai residents that consuming too much news could have adverse health effects, saying "People at risk of such stress are advised to follow only the news from state-run news... if one feels stressed, has difficulty sleeping, has a headache or becomes easily irritated, he/she should consult the stress clinic at public health establishments or call the Mental Health Department's hotline." 

Political scientist Aim Sinpeg writes in the Washington Post that this was "the most social-media savvy coup in Thailand.” For the first time ever, in Thailand’s coup history, the military had strong media engagement. The martial law declaration was announced through the Twitter account, @ArmyPR_News, and its new Facebook home, National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the official name of the military government. This makes perfect sense as 96% of Thais with internet access use Facebook.

This shrewd army seems to have helped generate a pro-coup online movement. The hashtag #CuteSoldierBoy became popular in the country, and a number of selfies featuring friendly Thai soldiers have been popping up online, apparently indicating support for the coup. 

This is highly reminiscent of World War II and Cold War propaganda posters in the US and across Europe. The governments then had to use bright artwork and catchy phrases like “Keep Calm and Carry On” to help garner support for the war effort, or paint Capitalism or Communism as an enemy ideology. Encouraging tweets, selfies and online pictures now creates the same effect. The state does not have to distribute posters and flyers anymore, it just needs followers.

Conversing with the Top Man

With the growing authoritarian propensity for social media, will there be conversations in the future for these regimes about internet freedom? Uzbekistan’s Gulnara Karimovam, the pop-star daughter of the Uzbek President — alias GooGoosha, has become the public face of the regime she may someday inherit due to her online presence. In 2012 she engaged in a rapid-fire Twitter debate with an official from the International Crisis Group who asked her to answer for the country’s human rights violations.

If authoritarian figures are putting themselves out on social media, they will have to answer to the authority of the crowd and there will have to be some form of conversation. This in itself is a good thing for the future of democracy, but the ins and outs of the internet also make it a weapon against activists and dissenting voices and now these people must learn to start treading as carefully as they would in the non-digital world.


Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist based in Pakistan