The Role of International Actors in Promoting Digital Authoritarianism in Africa

by Tope Shola Akinyetun
digital repression

Digital authoritarianism [DA] is a common phenomenon in both democratic and non-democratic societies, albeit, with varying dimensions and manifestations. It is defined by Polyakova and Meserole as the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations. It exists in different forms such as cyberattack, disinformation, surveillance, internet shutdown, propaganda, and online harassment. Attention has recently been drawn to the rise in the phenomenon in Africa with emphasis on its typology, causative factors and consequences, as well as the role of Covid19 in exacerbating the incidence. However, the role of international actors in promoting the phenomenon has received relatively low attention. Therefore, this essay explores the role of international actors; particularly Russia and China, in the spread of DA in Africa. It is argued that the support received by African countries from these countries has been largely responsible for the sustenance of the threat. This is because China and Russia are associated with a prolonged authoritarian rule and have therefore become accommodating to countries willing to promote digital repression and impair free speech. They have become role models for authoritarian countries that seek to strengthen authority and control citizen behaviour.

These countries are beginning to export their tools of authoritarianism to vulnerable countries and societies with authoritarian regimes. China – often described as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom under the leadership of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – is a forerunner in digital surveillance, societal regulation, and widespread censorship. The country uses technology to disrupt the structures of other countries for its economic benefits and has established a system of tight control of social and internet content.

Even though internet surveillance is not new, the Chinese government, however, engages in all-encompassing surveillance that integrates data from different sectors, apps, social media activities, and company surveillance. The ultimate goal of the Chinese government is to influence a company and individual behaviour through Social Credit Scoring (SCS) which is ‘intended to ensure that only those who respect the rules and norms of the CCP, who contribute to China’s political goals and who behave in a socially, ecologically and economically responsible manner can fully participate in the Chinese market and be an equal member of Chinese society’. Violators however will be blacklisted and denied access to public services. This form of all-encompassing surveillance ushers in an era of IT-backed authoritarianism where the state has access to people and company’s data and algorithms capable of evaluating their behaviour vis-à-vis CCP’s established standards. Meanwhile, in Russia, the government adopted a surveillance technology known as the System of Operative-Search Measures (SORM) to monitor phone calls, browsing activity, video surveillance, and access private and company online data. The government also legalized the surveillance of citizens’ online activities in the early 2000s and 2019, the Russian government signed into law a sovereign internet based on the Chinese model which will allow the government to switch off Russia from the global web while still maintaining internet connectivity in the country.

Although Russia is struggling to catch up with China’s model of digital repression, the Russian government has in the past two decades controlled the digital domain, invaded citizen digital privacy, censored the internet and influenced digital authoritarianism in illiberal regimes. In acting as role models and exporting tools of digital repression, Africa is regarded as a playground and chessboard by the authoritarian powers. These countries have in recent times increased their exploitation of Africa through a systematic influence of the economy and politics. Global rival powers, therefore, use the pretext of foreign aid and technology diplomacy to pursue their interest in Africa. It is reported that China actively exports digital surveillance tools to friendly authoritarian-minded regimes like Uganda and Zambia. Indeed, over 75 countries presently use artificial intelligence programs for surveillance of their citizens and opponents.

It is noteworthy to mention that China and Russia have adopted different strategies in exporting digital repression tools. China’s interest is to digitally induce social control while Russia is occupied with weaponizing information technology to spread disinformation and propaganda. Despite the different approaches, they have both been responsible for exporting their strategies to illiberal regimes interested in digital surveillance and repression of their population. Russia is also notable for its low-cost tools and its efficacy in undermining democracy in the country. In distinguishing between the Chinese and Russian models, the authors stress that Russia’s model of digital repression is more appealing to emerging illiberal regimes unable to afford China’s high-tech model. The two countries however provide intending authoritarian regimes with the tools needed for repression, intimidation, and information control.

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