Interview – Steven Feldstein


Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program, where he focuses on issues of technology and democracy, human rights, and American foreign policy. Previously, he was Frank and Bethine Church Professor of Public Affairs and Associate Professor at Boise State University. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as an appointee under President Obama, where he was responsible for African policy, international affairs labor and international religious freedom. He was also Director of Policy at the US Agency for International Development. He previously worked as an attorney on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Presidents Joseph Biden and John Kerry.

Feldstein is the author of The rise of digital repression: how technology is reshaping power, politics and resistance (Oxford University Press, 2021). He has published research on how artificial intelligence is reshaping repression, the geopolitics of technology, China’s role in advancing digital authoritarianism, and changing patterns of internet shutdowns. It also released a Global AI Watch Index to track the proliferation of advanced big data tools used by governments. He is a graduate of Princeton University and Berkeley Law.

Where do you see the most exciting research/debates in your field?

I think the war in Ukraine has ushered in new debates about the role and use of technology in conflict and geopolitics. Given the extent to which the Internet can help citizens avoid hostilities or locate vital services – from access to water to medical and health necessities – there are growing questions as to whether protecting access citizens’ information must be protected by international law. It also strikes me how important emerging technologies, such as the Starlink satellite internet device or even cryptocurrencies, are playing important roles in helping Ukrainian citizens fend off Russian aggression. My hunch is that this is just the beginning of new innovations in digital technology and warfare.

How has your way of understanding the world changed over time, and what (or who) has caused the most significant changes in your way of thinking?

One of the key takeaways from my research for my book is that we need to be careful not to be too deterministic about the impact of technology. Technology is a tool – neither good nor bad (nor neutral) – that is used by actors on the ground with specific motivations and incentives. In my field research, the most important factors determining whether regimes would adopt digital repression techniques were the presence of underlying political repression or authoritarianism. Generally, bad governments will seek to do bad things with all the instruments at their disposal.

What is digital repression and how does it achieve it?

In my book, I define digital repression as “the use of information and communication technology to monitor, coerce, or manipulate individuals or groups to deter specific activities or beliefs that challenge the state” . Digital repression includes five broad categories of techniques: surveillance, censorship, social manipulation and misinformation, internet shutdowns, and targeted persecution of online users. These five techniques are not mutually exclusive, in many circumstances they overlap. However, each category also relies on a unique set of tools to achieve its goals, which is why they have been grouped separately.

In your recent book, The rise of digital repression: how technology is reshaping power, politics and resistance, you examine case studies of digital repression around the world. Can you tell us about some interesting examples?

In the book, I include specific chapters on cases of digital repression in Thailand, the Philippines, and Ethiopia. Each of these case studies offers a unique set of insights to better understand the trajectory of digital repression. In Thailand, the government is deploying digital repression strategies to advance its political agenda; its context offers insight into how an autocratic state with a tradition of censorship adapted to the digital age. The Thai government combines control of information with traditional repression, providing the state with powerful capabilities to manage dissent. Thailand also demonstrates how digital repression originates and develops from internal factors – external actors, whether the United States or China, have only limited influence on policy-making. state strategies. For the Philippines, I examine how former President Rodrigo Duterte implemented a unique strategy of social manipulation and misinformation to advance his agenda. The chapter examines the democratic backsliding in the Philippines, explores the meaning of Duterte’s political rise, and investigates the main drivers of digital repression in the country – in particular the complicated relationship between internet platforms like Facebook and the spread of illiberal discourse. in the country. My third case study focuses on Ethiopia, a country that continues to be rocked by civil war. I look at the government’s internet shutdown strategy, the increasing levels of social manipulation and misinformation, and the issues of surveillance and censorship. Chinese companies have a considerable presence in Ethiopia, and I also consider the extent to which the Chinese authorities have enabled repression in the country.

In a 2020 blog post, you mention that most of the digital repression in China lies in advanced surveillance, both domestically and overseas. Did this strategy continue? How does it compare to the strategies of other autocratic states?

China is deploying a range of tools when it comes to advancing digital suppression tactics in other countries. His companies are world leaders when it comes to exporting surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition (which allows countries like Uganda or Serbia to track and monitor opposition candidates). Chinese companies are also very active in selling censorship tools (offering everything from cyberspace management to internet firewall technology to countries like Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Tanzania).

Moreover, you write that digital repression occurs in predominantly autocratic countries. With the decline of democracy around the world, do you expect to see digital repression happening more frequently in democracies as well?

To be clear, digital repression takes place in authoritarian and democratic countries. But the prevalence of digital repression is much higher in authoritarian states. The likelihood of an authoritarian country like Saudi Arabia relying on digital repression strategies compared to a democracy like Ghana is significantly higher. The growing tide of authoritarianism unfortunately seems to suggest that many more undemocratic regimes will rely on digital tools to support their autocratic goals in the years to come.

What are the potential consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine for government use of technology, both inside and outside of Russia?

As I mentioned above, the invasion of Russia highlighted the importance of technology for geopolitics. Russia already demonstrated digital trends before the war with a crackdown on the independent press, pressure on digital platforms to remove anti-Kremlin content, and the implementation of surveillance and censorship restrictions. The war has accelerated these patterns, virtually excluding Russian citizens from independent media sources and forcing external platforms in favor of Russian platforms (such as Yandex, VK) that the Kremlin can control. The future is bleak when it comes to the ability of Russian citizens to access independent voices and get a clearer picture of the devastation Putin has inflicted on the country.

Is there a relationship between economic turbulence and the use of digital repression by states?

There certainly can be. For many autocratic countries, part of the “bargain” with the elites is that in exchange for political control, the government will promote economic growth or at least promise to stay out of economic affairs. Thailand is a good example of how this has played out – the government constantly deploys censorship strategies to stifle citizens’ access to information in order to maintain its power, but it is also sensitive to outside perspectives that could harm its business model. As a result, he will refrain from pursuing certain digital repression strategies if the business community feels that doing so will jeopardize outside investment (linked to the idea of ​​the “digital dictator’s dilemma” described in my book).

What strategies, if any, can individual citizens use to oppose autocratic regimes that attempt to digitally suppress their rights?

It depends on the regime and the context, but there are many strategies that civil society organizations can pursue. An important idea is that the groups connect with outside actors and facilitate international pressure on regimes that violate digital rights. This could mean pressuring the United States and other democracies to implement sanctions or issue public statements criticizing repressive governments. Another idea is for groups to experiment with innovation and adaptation in the face of digital repression. In my book, I describe how Ethiopian opposition groups have been forced to adapt to internet shutdowns by using physical networks and other means to transmit information about government abuses. In the end, they were able to pressure the ruling government and precipitate a change in leadership.

What is the most important advice you could give to young researchers in international relations?

One of my best experiences was working abroad for a year in Rwanda on the Princeton program in Africa. Gaining real-world experience outside the United States and coming face-to-face with major dilemmas regarding post-conflict justice, reconciliation, and war has been transformative for me. Princeton in Africa (where I am currently a board member) and other similar programs (such as the Peace Corps) are still operational and deserve special consideration for students looking to become future IR professionals.

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