Defining Digital Authoritarianism

Philosophy and Technology 37 (2):1-19 (2024)
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It is becoming increasingly common for authoritarian regimes to leverage digital technologies to surveil, repress and manipulate their citizens. Experts typically refer to this practice as digital authoritarianism (DA). Existing definitions of DA consistently presuppose a politically repressive agent intentionally exploiting digital technologies to pursue authoritarian ends. I refer to this as the intention-based definition. This paper argues that this definition is untenable as a general description of DA. I begin by illustrating the current predominance of the intention-based definition (Section 2). Section 3 then presents four counterexamples to this definition: benign surveillance; digital sovereignty; attention-harvesting algorithms; and tech-induced loneliness. In each case, we witness authoritarianism being promoted by digital technologies without any evidence of this being intentionally caused by politically repressive agents. Based on these observations, I contend that the intention-based definition is underinclusive and is therefore unsustainable. Section 4 outlines an improved definition of DA – what I call the promotion-based definition. Since this more expansive definition does not posit intentional, politically repressive agency as a precondition of DA, it can accommodate the counterexamples discussed in Section 3. Moreover, it enables us to catch a broader spectrum of cases of DA, such as tech-induced loneliness, which those adhering to the intention-based definition are prone to overlook. After outlining further practical benefits of the promotion-based definition, I argue that we still need to distinguish between intentional and unintentional forms of DA since they call for distinct types of remedial action.

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James S. Pearson
University of Amsterdam

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