Repression in the digital age: Communication technology and the politics of state violence

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This talk will be based on a book project, in which I theoretically and empirically investigate the link between state-implemented Internet controls and state-sanctioned violent repression. I identify two main forms of control, which are the restriction (or disruption) of the Internet on the one hand, and digital surveillance on the other hand. Governments face a trade-off: they can either restrict access to the Internet and with it diminish opposition groups’ capabilities, or they can permit the digital exchange of information and monitor it to their own advantage. The choice of Internet control affects the type and scale of state-sanctioned violence used against perceived domestic threats. The book presents a wealth of empirical support at both the subnational and the cross- country level on how Internet control and state repression in the digital age go hand in hand. In an in-depth analysis of the Syrian conflict, the book presents evidence on the link between Internet accessibility and state violence in the to date most socially mediated conflict in history. It hereby draws on a newly compiled database of all documented killings committed by the Assad regime in the first four years of the conflict. Qualitative evidence is presented in two case studies of Ethiopia and Iran, which reveal how the variety of different means for digital control affect state-sanctioned violence in different contexts. Lastly, a global analysis of Internet shutdowns and state repression demonstrates the pervasiveness and magnitude of the issue. The empirical studies in the book present a range of methodological innovations regarding the analyses of large-scale data on human rights violations, including the use of supervised machine learning and statistical methods to correct for incomplete data on violence. The findings highlight the ambiguous role digital technologies play in contentious settings, providing low-cost coordination mechanisms for challengers, but equally informing governments’ repressive strategies in to date unexplored ways.
Discussant: Katerina Tkacova (Oxford)