How Social Media Has Altered the Political Landscape
September 4, 2022
While technology has undoubtedly been a helpful tool for individuals' daily tasks, governments worldwide have been investing heavily in technology. They have leveraged their existing technologies to gain a leg up over other states and consolidate further power over their citizens. Technology has certainly altered the political landscape of states worldwide by introducing a new means for governments to not only restrict opposition and information but also play a role in foreign affairs.
Firstly, technology in many states has been adapted to silence opposition and limit information, which restricts citizens from making informed decisions on their government. This topic is explored in 'The Digital Dictators,' an article published by the Council on Foreign Relations. The author voices that while tools of technology available to citizens, like social media, were initially shown to be helpful to political participation in autocracies, states such as China and Iran began co-opting these mechanisms to repress vocal opposition and general criticism about the government system as a whole.
The article cites the invention of China's 'Great Firewall' and its work in the wake of the Hong Kong protests by removing subversive content, Iran's complete control over their cyberspace, shutting off internet access entirely during the 2019 protests, and the implementation of an AI-based social credit program in China meant to discourage and track those who expressed negative sentiments about the government. The use of surveillance and restrictive mechanisms to limit the flow of information in or out of states like China and Iran limits the citizen's ability to politically participate while being knowledgeable about the system they would be operating in. Those in power having control over what the citizens see or hear online certainly help sustain the leaders' grip over their citizens and leave little room for political discourse.
Given that governments often retain power by reinforcing the idea that the system truly works, controlling the information that citizens consume daily can strengthen the perceived legitimacy of the state's leaders. It's extremely valuable for leaders to have control over technology, and thus, social media, in their country; they can control the narrative of their policies and public perception. This begins a reinforcing cycle of maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the people and thus having a more significant voice in government. It changes the political landscape by directly hitting the legitimacy of a government available for citizens to see. With the ability to harness its power, it's a potent tool for state-building and retaining power.
Furthermore, technology has had immense impacts on foreign affairs by spurring the growth of alliances. Stated in 'Uniting the Techno-Democracies,' many states have been expanding into global markets, such as how China has expanded into places like Zimbabwe, introducing Chinese AI companies to pursue a national facial recognition system. Huawei (a state-backed company) has also "deployed its digital surveillance technology in over a dozen authoritarian regimes" (Kendall-Taylor). These technological alliances outlined in 'Uniting the Techno-Democracies,' have impacts economically and politically. Many of these technology companies, especially in autocratic countries, are state-backed, furthering foreign relations between already fully developed autocratic countries and those who appear to be inching towards authoritarianism by implementing AI, surveillance, and facial recognition programs in bids to silence opposition. For example, China-Africa relations use technological innovation as a keystone in their quest to ‘develop’ many nations in the continent, as quoted by spokespersons from China’s Ministry of Commerce and countries such as Senegal and South Africa. The creation of the ‘Digital Silk Road Project’ in Africa has strengthened ties with China and made them increasingly more reliant on Beijing, thus favoring the country over its Western counterparts (ww.dw.com).
Some may argue that technology has disproportionately changed the political landscape of authoritarian states more than that of democratic states. While the two regime types do opt to use technology in different ways (with different effects), the political landscape in both regime types sees repercussions of technology in the fabric of civil society and the government itself. For example, in comparing Russia and the UK's handling of technology in their governments, it's clear that one country uses them for control purposes while the other uses them for political discourse and transparency.
Both of them interact with media through technological platforms to support their governments. Russia, interacts with media by flooding "the internet with pro-regime stories, distracting online users from negative news, and creates confusion and uncertainty through the spread of alternative narratives" (Kendall-Taylor). The UK uses social media to create a communication forum between the citizens and educate on new policies (Social Media Playbook). UK media sites are also very rarely censored and create a pathway for readers to hear non-state-controlled news, albeit at the expense of misinformation which has been a significant issue for the UK in the past.
While the two countries use technology in different ways, they both have the same goal -- of increasing the government's legitimacy following standards of their regime type. The Russian government's use of technology aims to establish the government as strong to reassure viewers of the government's greatness, whereas the UK government uses technology to establish the government as open and transparent in order to remind viewers of their role in civil society and advertise democracy as the favorable option for the state.
The results of their approaches to censorship (or lack thereof) have had varying impacts on the respective country's civil society. In Russia, the censorship of the country's online media has caused some citizens to become skeptical of the news posted online and question the government's legitimacy. This is especially apparent in the current invasion of Russia against Ukraine. While the media remains censored in Russia, anti-war protesters have gathered to protest against the government's actions after their voices as the citizens were not being listened to by the government. Whereas in the UK, the open platform for political commentary has led to many voters being ill-advised and susceptible to misinformed voting, a phenomenon seen during the EU referendum of 2016. While the citizens were wholly listened to, the misinformation had tangible effects on the entire country, which may not have necessarily paid off.
Governments have used technology for foreign relations purposes, strengthening the public opinion of leaders, and silencing opposition. Overall, technology has impacted the political landscape of all states around the world regardless of their regime type.
Cohen, Jared, and Richard Fontaine. “Uniting the Techno-Democracies.” Foreign Affairs, 24 Nov. 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-10-13/uniting-techno-democracies.
Kendall-Taylor, Andrea, et al. “The Digital Dictators.” Foreign Affairs, 28 July 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-02-06/digital-dictators.
“Social Media Playbook.” GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/social-media-playbook#:~:text=Government%20uses%20social%20media%20to,about%20the%20transformation%20of%20services.
(www.dw.com), Deutsche Welle. “Investing in Africa's Tech Infrastructure. Has China Won Already?: DW: 03.05.2019.” DW.COM, https://www.dw.com/en/investing-in-africas-tech-infrastructure-has-china-won-already/a-48540426.