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How autocratic regimes try to undermine democracy at home and abroad

A recent publication by Rachel Vanderhill of Wofford College’s department on government and international affairs charted the efforts of autocratic regimes to undermine the diffusion of democracy within their respective countries. It assessed how countries that are otherwise integrated into global society can resist the spread of democracy. Focussing on China and Kazakhstan, Vanderhill found that two main methods are utilised: “restricting exposure to democratic ideas” and “developing alternative narratives about democracy to reduce local receptivity to democratic diffusion”. At the same time, a report by Freedom House on the restriction and manipulation of online information found that these methods “played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year.”

Internet censorship and controlled narratives

In the Freedom House report, China was ranked the “world’s worst abuser of internet freedom”. All internet connections going into China are routed through state controlled hubs, allowing them to restrict any incoming data. By employing resources such as this so-called “Great Firewall”, forcing internet service providers to self-censor in addition to state censorship, and providing domestic alternatives to conventional internet sources, it limits discussions of democracy that contradicts the party line. As Vanderhill explains, by regulating rhetoric they make it harder for their population to be exposed to dialogue that promotes conventional democratic principles. This is supplemented by the creation of alternative narratives.

China is the worst abuser of internet freedom

In China’s case, this promotes limited reform heavily managed by the Chinese Communist Party, and defines their own form of “democracy” distinct from the alleged “western” form, with much less focus on civil and political rights as included in the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights or other international instruments. Indeed, Vanderhill’s paper found that though support for democracy within China is still as high as 90%, it seems to be a distorted form of democracy promoted through party sanctioned narratives.

Manipulating the understanding of democracy

This technique of manipulating the understanding of democracy is again used Kazakhstan, one of the other case studies in Vanderhill’s paper. Despite heavy integration into the world community, the Kazakh authorities have managed to maintain their hold on power by influencing how democracy is perceived by their citizens.

The main narrative used is one that emphasises stability over democracy; to liberalise too rapidly, the government argues, would destabilise the entire country. Instead, the transition to outright democracy will be a slow and steady process that needs to be overseen by the government. This rhetoric of “gradualism” attempts to convince the Kazakh people that they are already on a steady transition to outright democracy. Any pressure for more rapid change to alleged “western” forms of democracy, be it domestic or international, would only destabilise this process, and so be against the best interests of the people and state. The inherent risk of destabilisation is often illustrated with examples of other countries which have been destabilised by perceived failures in this model, such as Georgia and Ukraine. Therefore, in convincing many people that the government provides the only viable route to democracy, the Kazakh regime manages to retain its hold on power despite its authoritarianism.

Record number of governments restricted internet freedom

The aforementioned Freedom House report found that a “record number of governments have restricted internet service for political or security reasons”, which has “contributed to a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom”. As research has shown that open diffusion and usage of internet can lead to citizens adopting “stronger democratic preferences”, such restrictions are likely to harm the proliferation of democratic principles, as they already seem to be doing in Kazakhstan or China.

2017 was the seventh consecutive year with decline in internet freedom

Restriction methods are particularly effective when combined with disinformation tactics, serving to effectively replace inconvenient truths with state-controlled narratives. Around thirty countries are believed to currently employ “opinion shapers” who “spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media”. Just as information restriction methods are becoming increasingly advanced, so too are disinformation tactics: “bots, propaganda producers, and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms” are all now used to make inauthentic information nearly indiscernible from genuine facts. Moreover, these tactics are used not just to reinforce autocratic control within a country, but also to destabilise external rivals; the most pressing example of the latter is “Russia’s disinformation campaigns in the United States and Europe”. When used in tandem, therefore, these tactics can be effective weapons in the arsenal of autocratic leaders.

At the same time, awareness of these methods has impacted their efficacy in countries at risk of democratic backsliding. A manual on strengthening cybersecurity against authoritarian regimes published by the new human rights organization Safeguard Defenders educates readers on such risks. Aided by technologies such as VPNs, it is possible for informed citizens to bypass these efforts at information restriction.

Image: China’s internet restrictions are also labeled “The Great Firewall”. Original by Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 3.0

Charles Marsh
Charles has a Masters Degree in Global Politics. He worked as the UNPA Campaign's intern in New York in 2018. In 2021, he became a founding Director of Democracy Without Borders-UK.
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