We live in a connected world: social media platforms that did not exist a decade ago now boast hundreds of millions of users and mobile phones are commonplace in even the poorest and most remote regions. Are these technologies, which have reshaped daily life for millions, a catalyst for democratic reform, or part of a new digital panopticon through which governments can spy on and control their citizens?
In 2007, when Larry Diamond coined the term “liberation technology,” these questions were largely academic – and were discussed at length in a collection of articles in the Journal of Democracy, recently updated and re-released in a book of the same name. But when democratic revolutions swept the Arab world four years later, spurred on by Facebook and watched around the world in real time on Twitter and YouTube, it seemed that the Internet had finally emerged as a force for positive political change in even the most repressive regimes.
At the same time, authoritarian governments are learning how to fight back, with some of the same tools. In many countries, the Internet has itself become an electronic battleground where repressive regimes are employing increasingly sophisticated strategies for repression and manipulation.