Introduction

Authoritarian governments increasingly adopt technology-centric national strategies and methods of internal governance. They control their societies through digital censorship, propaganda, and surveillance, and use these same tools to manipulate foreign societies.1 Their leaders prioritize the development of cutting-edge technologies in pursuit of government efficiency and military and economic advantage. Some analysts view this turn to “digital authoritarianism” as an approach designed to make authoritarians more durable at home and powerful abroad.2 However, authoritarians adopt technology-centric strategies primarily due to their own insecurity. Digital authoritarianism is not so much a strategic choice, as it is a strategic necessity. In a globalized world, ideas and communications technologies are inherently threatening to authoritarian regimes, which must control both to ensure their survival. Authoritarians also increasingly depend on information technologies for economic growth and to build state capacity in areas where they have traditionally been at a comparative disadvantage to democracies. Ultimately, digital authoritarianism creates systemic risks for domestic governance and national security. In this sense, while digital authoritarianism has strengths, it will also become a regime’s Achilles’ Heel.

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  1. For an overview of the features of “digital authoritarianism,” see Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole, “Exporting digital authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese models,” Brookings, August 2019.
  2. See, for example, Andrew Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz & Joseph Wright, “The digital dictators: How technology strengthens autocracy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020.