8. Case study: Digital Citizenship or Digital Authoritarianism?

Tony Roberts
Institute of Development Studies
Tanja Bosch
University of Cape Town
  • The same digital technologies that enable freedoms and opportunities also enable repression, notably through mass surveillance, disinformation and Internet shutdowns that limit digital citizenship.

  • Research in 10 African countries found 65 examples of digital technology being used to open civic space, but 115 examples of digital technology being used to close it.

  • Development co-operation actors, working with civil society and governments, can help keep online civic spaces open and ensure that states and corporations which deploy digital technologies respect the rights of digital citizens and the rule of law.

Digital citizenship is the use of mobile and Internet tools in online civic engagement. Around the world, individuals are adopting and adapting digital technologies to expand the boundaries of online civic space to demand change and claim rights and social justice. Countering and confronting them is a growing trend of digital authoritarianism – the deployment of digital technologies by those who hold power to restrict democratic space and curtail digital citizenship. This battle over online civic space is constant: neither side is ever completely successful, but unless digital citizenship is regularly exercised and defended, democratic civic space is likely to be lost.

Development co-operation, therefore, has an important role in supporting civil society and progressive governments to structure opportunities for digital citizenship. Digital technologies can facilitate transparency and accountability, and either open or close online spaces for the kind of “inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels” that all governments signed up to in Sustainable Development Goal 16.7 (Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2015[1]).

Thanks to mobile and Internet technologies, civic engagement and debate – like political, social and economic life – increasingly happen online. Digital technologies are used in campaigns to call out sexual harassment, highlight government corruption and even remove presidents. Increasingly, policy debates also take place online, including those around gender, vaccinations and migration. Therefore, it matters who gets to participate, influence and determine debate in the process of digital citizenship.

While digital divides persist within and between countries, digital citizenship has expanded, offering new opportunities and freedoms for millions of people around the world. For instance, recent research in ten African countries identified 65 positive examples of what the African Digital Rights Network calls “digital openings”, which include social media activism and innovations to provide transparency and track corruption (Roberts, 2021[2]). At the same time, there is growing concern within civil society that states and corporations are using digital tools for authoritarian ends and to close online spaces for debate and dissent (Shahbaz, 2018[3]; Mare, 2020[4]). The research in Africa also found evidence of this worrying trend, identifying 115 “digital closings” of civic space,1 including through state surveillance, online disinformation and Internet shutdowns (Roberts, 2021[2]). Figure 8.1 presents examples of digital openings and closings.

Definitions of digital citizenship and digital citizens are evolving as the positive and potentially negative aspects of digital technologies become apparent. Thirteen years ago, Tolbert, Mossberger and McNeal (2008[5]) defined digital citizenship as “the ability to participate in society online”, and digital citizens as “those who use technology frequently [daily], who use technology for political information to fulfil their civic duty, and who use technology at work for economic gain”. In their view, digital citizenship is characterised by three dimensions: (1) social inclusion, (2) civic participation and (3) economic opportunity. Most digital citizenship literature between 2005 and 2015 focused on documenting and analysing the benefits of using digital technologies to enable social and economic inclusion, and their role as a tool in popular uprisings to remove repressive governments around the world.

However, not all digital citizenship is progressive or even desirable. If defined merely as online civic engagement, then online xenophobia or calls for ethnic cleansing could qualify as digital citizenship. For this reason, a definition of digital citizenship is needed that goes beyond the use of digital technologies in social life and includes a normative commitment to human rights or social justice. At a minimum, development actors have an interest in “online voice”: digital citizenship that facilitates inclusion and participation of marginalised groups. Some in the development community will go further, supporting digital rights: digital citizenship that advances goals of equity and rights. Ideally, digital citizenship should shift unjust power structures (between authoritarian leaders and citizens or in gender relations). For this reason, digital citizenship is more appropriately defined as the use of mobile and Internet tools in civic engagement to claim rights and social justice.

At a minimum, development actors have an interest in “online voice”: digital citizenship that facilitates inclusion and participation of marginalised groups. Some in the development community will go further, supporting digital rights: digital citizenship that advances goals of equity and rights.  
        

Digital citizenship is often most precious in authoritarian settings and when democratic space is shrinking or closed. During periods of repression, citizens forced underground or into exile often open online civic spaces to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and communication (Roberts, 2019[6]). According to Freedom House, 2021 is the 15th consecutive year of declining political freedoms worldwide (Shahbaz, 2018[3]), a period also characterised by shrinking civic space (CIVICUS, 2020[7]). The space for digital citizenship cannot be taken for granted.

Human rights activists are often early adopters of digital tools, including short texts (SMS), citizen blogging and social media. Tech-savvy young people frequently use new technologies to raise important policy issues that mainstream politicians and media do not address. Although states are often slow to respond to each new generation of digital citizenship, their deeper pockets and powerful institutions mean they can deploy an arsenal of digital technologies to dampen digital democracy, dialogue and dissent. Governments around the world regularly use Internet surveillance and mobile phone interception technologies to spy on their own citizens (Global Information Society Watch, 2014[8]; Roberts et al., 2021[9]).

This opening and closing of online civic spaces can be framed as a digital version of the Whack-a-Mole fairground attraction. First, activists pop up using Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or whatever latest digital activism technology. At some point, the state responds by hammering them down with authoritarian innovations such as compulsory mobile phone registration, biometric IDs, Twitter bans and Internet shutdowns. As the state brings one set of digital citizenship technologies under control, activists adopt new technologies and pop up in a new spaces to outmanoeuvre the government (Figure 8.2).

This battle over online civic space is unending. Neither side is ever completely successful. Digital citizens must use online space regularly or lose it. Development co-operation actors can play a role in keeping online space open for digital citizens to exercise their rights to free speech and communication.

A free and open Internet is a valuable space for open, democratic debate and deliberation. In countries where offline civic space is shrinking, this online civic space is even more precious and, as a result, fiercely contested territory. Digital authoritarianism – in the form of digital surveillance, online disinformation and Internet shutdowns – is a widening threat in much of the world. It constantly evolves to foil expressions of online civic engagement to claim rights and social justice.

The cases of Cambridge Analytica, Edward Snowden and Pegasus spyware raised awareness amongst the public and policymakers of the importance of digital citizenship. These three cases demonstrate that the same digital technologies that enable freedoms and opportunities also enable repression, notably mass surveillance, online disinformation and Internet shutdowns.

The Cambridge Analytica affair demonstrated how social media companies build digital profiles of individuals through systematic and secret surveillance of online behaviour, and offer them for sale to political interest groups to covertly manipulate voters’ beliefs and behaviours (Cadwalladr and Graham-Harrison, 2018[11]; Zuboff, 2019[12]). Corporate lobbyists and political parties can now routinely buy such digital influence operations as a commercial service. There also is evidence that foreign and domestic online influence operations involving hired troll farms, bot armies and cyborg operations target key development policy issues.2 Campaigns of co-ordinated, inauthentic online behaviour have influenced development debates on vaccination, climate, immigration and gender and LGBTQ rights (Jones, 2019[13]; Woolley and Howard, 2018[14]). In the 2017 elections in Kenya, political elites reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars on fake news and disinformation campaigns designed to manipulate citizens’ beliefs and voting (Brown, 2019[15]).

Surveillance agencies can tap into citizens’ Internet and mobile communications, and the Snowden affair provided copious evidence that governments act outside the law in conducting systematic mass surveillance of their own citizens. The use of artificial intelligence algorithms allows the automation of parts of the surveillance process, making mass surveillance feasible even though this violates international human rights law. The Pegasus spyware revelations illustrated how commercially available software enabled repressive governments to hack the mobile phones of individuals and illegally spy on judges, journalists, activists and politicians (Marczak et al., 2018[16]). The arsenal of digital technologies being developed by corporations and deployed by states led to routine violation of citizens’ basic rights to private communication in many places (Roberts et al., 2021[9]; Duncan, 2019[17]).

Internet shutdowns, too, are increasingly a tool of digital authoritarianism. The first recorded national Internet shutdown was during the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt in 2001. Intentional Internet disruptions are most frequently government-ordered nationwide shutdowns; they are usually implemented ahead of elections or during online protests and are an effective way to both negate digital citizenship and obscure human rights violations (Taye, 2020[18]). India carries out more shutdowns than any other nation (Anthonio, Skok and Díaz Hernández, 2021[19]). Governments now employ more sophisticated techniques to target Internet disruption. They can shut down a single platform, as in the case of Nigeria’s Twitter ban, or shut down a single region, as in the case of Ethiopia’s disruption in the Tigray region. In Africa as a whole, the number of intentional Internet shutdowns by governments grew by 25% between 2019 and 2020 (Anthonio, Skok and Díaz Hernández, 2021[19]).

All surveillance is a violation of fundamental human rights. The discovery that states routinely engage in mass surveillance of citizens was a shock for many, and there is growing concern that illegal surveillance by states is becoming routine and normalised in ways that reduce freedoms and rights. Recent research into state surveillance practices in six African countries found that all conducted surveillance beyond what is legally permissible even though national constitutions and laws and international conventions protect rights to privacy, freedom of expression and communication. When caught, the offenders enjoyed impunity (Roberts et al., 2021[9]).

Moreover, existing regulation and legislation are inadequate to contain surveillance, curtail disinformation or secure fair taxation of digital platform companies. In the analogue world, social interaction, economic life and political discourse took place in town halls, factories and newspapers. These were relatively easy to regulate and legislate for. Now social, economic and political life increasingly takes place on digital platforms owned by private monopolies formed in the United States and China. As noted in Digital Citizenship in a Datafied Society, “The tools that we use to enact and perform our citizenship are hosted by a small set of commercial platforms, provided by a highly concentrated business sector” (Hintz, Dencik and Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019[20]). These corporations are beyond the regulatory and legislative reach of other governments, raising questions about democratic accountability.

Strategic litigation to enforce individual rights and privacy may be a useful tactic in both democratic and authoritarian settings. For instance, civil society actors in Kenya and South Africa took their governments to the constitutional court on issues related to rights and digital technologies. These efforts raised public awareness, provided a focus for civil society, and forced the governments to revise surveillance practices and legislation. There is potential for similar approaches even in more repressive states. Box 8.1 describes how an online protest movement in Nigeria led to change.

However, better information about how states and private actors use digital technologies is crucial to supporting digital citizenship and an open digital civic space. Most of what is known about surveillance and disinformation focuses on the global North. There is relatively little in-depth research on digital authoritarianism in the global South, and local researchers, journalists, activists and policy makers lack resources and capacity to detail the dimensions and dynamics of problems in their own countries. Without such detail, it is practically impossible to define and develop measures to counter digital authoritarianism and restore free and open space for digital citizenship. Applied research with local human rights workers, lawyers and journalists would be more efficient than academic papers.

Development co-operation actors have a range of practice and policy interventions at their disposal to grow space for digital citizenship and roll back digital authoritarianism. Collaboration with civil society and local capacity-building to exercise digital citizenship and expand civic space are key. So is building the domestic capacity of activists, journalists, lawyers and researchers to monitor, analyse and overcome illegal surveillance, online disinformation and Internet shutdowns. Interventions by development agencies can provide support to:

  • raise public awareness about privacy rights and surveillance practices

  • build civil society capacity to challenge digital authoritarianism

  • fund digital rights organisations3

  • support strategic litigation to end violations of privacy rights and impunity

  • fund civil society participation in policy processes such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF)

  • support pressure for regulation through the International Telecommunication Union, World Summit on the Information Society, IGF and United Nations special rapporteurs

  • fund applied research to monitor, analyse and end digital authoritarianism.

The descent into digital authoritarianism is not inevitable. Co-ordinated action among development co-operation agencies can strengthen digital citizenship and restore a free and open Internet for all.

References

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Notes

← 1. Civic space refers to public places where it is safe to exercise democratic freedoms of political opinion, association and speech. See also: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/20.500.12413/15964/Digital_Rights_in_Closing_Civic_Space_Lessons_from_Ten_African_Countries.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y

← 2. Trolls are humans who post insincere messages online to disrupt debate or manipulate perceptions. A troll farm is a team of trolls paid to disrupt or manipulate online discussion. A bot (from “robot”) is a piece of software to automate troll-like messages so that they appear to be written by a human. A cyborg falls in between the two: a human troll using some semi-automated posting.

← 3. Examples of digital rights organisations include Access Now, the Association for Progressive Communications, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, and Paradigm Initiative.

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