Digital Adaptation in Autocracies

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In recent years, the world has witnessed drastic changes to information and communication technologies, ranging from the emergence of digital communication tools in previously disconnected areas to the permanent development of even more sophisticated tools. To this day, nearly half of the global population is connected to the World Wide Web, making the exchange of information and communication accessible and attainable to most parts of the world. These rapid changes have forever changed the way in which political actors communicate with one another, allowing not only for new possibilities on how information travels, but also how these channels can be restricted or manipulated to meet strategical goals. In sum, exerting control over the digital space manifests power over communication flows and political actors have a strong interest to defend their political stance in the digital environment. In this dissertation, I address the ability of political actors in authoritarian regimes to adapt to such substantial changes to communication in order to sustain in a world that has become increasingly more digitized.

In the first paper, I address the use of repressive tools both on the ground and in the digital space in order to silence domestic dissent. Previously, research has exclusively looked at non-digital or digital repression separately and it remains puzzling under which circumstances either one of these options is preferred. I argue that authoritarian leaders are not only influenced by domestic factors but that international pressure influences the decision-making process whether to repress the public physically or digitally. As digital repression is less incisive, visible and harmful than physical suppression, I argue that the autocrat will trend towards repression in the digital space when international dependencies are high. Therefore, I examine the use of physical violence, Internet outages and online censorship as a response to domestic protest when international linkages are high. Relying on event data and fine-grained Internet measurement data, I find that digital repression, and in particular content filtering, is increasingly present during protest events when political alliances with other democratic countries are built, but not when investments appear at stake.

In the second project, I outline how digital repression, in particular Internet shutdowns, are evaluated by the broader public. Deprivation caused by a halt in Internet services can stir anger and frustration among citizens, who would have any reason to evaluate their government as less positive in the aftermath of an Internet shutdown. Why is it then that the government orders such incisive measures when a harsh backlash from the population can be expected? By using survey data from the Afrobarometer in combination with data on Internet outages, I do not find that citizens have a lower evaluation of their government in the aftermath of an Internet shutdown. This might be caused by a lack of awareness to associate the incidence to state repression, or that actions are justified for the greater good. This finding implies for the autocrat that the implementation of a sudden halt in Internet services is most likely not to cause a backlash effect and can be imposed upon the public when necessary.

In the third paper, written together with Nils B. Weidmann, we examine in how far citizens are able to adapt digitally to contentious situations on the ground. During protest events, citizens might divert to anonymity-preserving technologies like \textit{The Onion Router} to circumvent online censorship and surveillance. In this study, we use protest data and data on the Tor network in combination. The results show that Tor usage increases after a series of protest events, and that this relationship is more pronounced in countries with social media censorship.

In sum, this dissertation shows that in today's world authoritarian figures, who tend to be in asymmetric control over the Internet, are capable of adapting to rapid changes to the digital infrastructure by using it to their own advantage. Novel digital repressive tactics allow for less incisive and visible ways to silence protests when international dependencies are at stake. Moreover, the implementation of Internet shutdowns does not create a potential backlash from the public, making it a powerful tool to control information access and diffusion. However, not only authoritarian regimes have adapted to the changing environment of the digital space. Citizens have been equally successful in claiming the digital space to themselves by overcoming online censorship in the light of protest events on the ground.

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320 Politik
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information technology, repression, protest
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ISO 690STRAUCH, Rebecca, 2023. Digital Adaptation in Autocracies [Dissertation]. Konstanz: University of Konstanz
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@phdthesis{Strauch2023Digit-66294,
  year={2023},
  title={Digital Adaptation in Autocracies},
  author={Strauch, Rebecca},
  address={Konstanz},
  school={Universität Konstanz}
}
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In the first paper, I address the use of repressive tools both on the ground and in the digital space in order to silence domestic dissent. Previously, research has exclusively looked at non-digital or digital repression separately and it remains puzzling under which circumstances either one of these options is preferred. I argue that  authoritarian leaders are not only influenced by domestic factors but that international pressure influences the decision-making process whether to repress the public physically or digitally. As digital repression is less incisive, visible and harmful than physical suppression, I argue that the autocrat will trend towards repression in the digital space when international dependencies are high. Therefore, I examine the use of physical violence, Internet outages and online censorship as a response to domestic protest when international linkages are high. Relying on event data and fine-grained Internet measurement data, I find that digital repression, and in particular content filtering, is increasingly present during protest events when political alliances with other democratic countries are built, but not when investments appear at stake.

In the second project, I outline how digital repression, in particular Internet shutdowns, are evaluated by the broader public. Deprivation caused by a halt in Internet services can stir anger and frustration among citizens, who would have any reason to evaluate their government as less positive in the aftermath of an Internet shutdown. Why is it then that the government orders such incisive measures when a harsh backlash from the population can be expected? By using survey data from the Afrobarometer in combination with data on Internet outages, I do not find that citizens have a lower evaluation of their government in the aftermath of an Internet shutdown. This might be caused by a lack of awareness to associate the incidence to state repression, or that actions are justified for the greater good. This finding implies for the autocrat that the implementation of a sudden halt in Internet services is most likely not to cause a backlash effect and can be imposed upon the public when necessary. 

In the third paper, written together with Nils B. Weidmann, we examine in how far citizens are able to adapt digitally to contentious situations on the ground. During protest events, citizens might divert to anonymity-preserving technologies like \textit{The Onion Router} to circumvent online censorship and surveillance. In this study, we use protest data and data on the Tor network in combination. The results show that Tor usage increases after a series of protest events, and that this relationship is more pronounced in countries with social media censorship. 


In sum, this dissertation shows that in today's world authoritarian figures, who tend to be in asymmetric control over the Internet, are capable of adapting to rapid changes to the digital infrastructure by using it to their own advantage. Novel digital repressive tactics allow for less incisive and visible ways to silence protests when international dependencies are at stake. Moreover, the implementation of Internet shutdowns does not create a potential backlash from the public, making it a powerful tool to control information access and diffusion. However, not only authoritarian regimes have adapted to the changing environment of the digital space. Citizens have been equally successful in claiming the digital space to themselves by overcoming online censorship in the light of protest events on the ground.</dcterms:abstract>
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February 8, 2023
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Konstanz, Univ., Diss., 2023
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