Russia Is Using 'Digital Repression' to Suppress Dissent

Tue, 15 Mar 2022 09:00:00 GMT
Scientific American - Technology

The Putin regime has a portfolio of digital tools to control information and crack down on protests...

Within the country President Vladimir Putin's regime is controlling the narrative through censorship, state control of media and other forms of digital repression.

A new review of 192 studies of digital repression, published last week in Science Advances, demonstrates that local police forces, corporations and even powerful individuals have attempted to exert digital control in a variety of ways.

"We're trying to connect the study of digital repression to a very long-standing literature on more traditional forms of repression," says co-author Jennifer Earl, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

"Because, of course, it's not that governments or private actors started to repress with the advent of digital and social media-they had already been using lots of repressive tools." Scientific American spoke with Earl about the different forms that digital repression can take, how Russia is using a portfolio of such methods and whether its attempts to construct an alternate reality will succeed.

In the paper, we talk about digital repression as two things: more physical controls and more information controls.

You could think about those physical control measures as things that are being targeted at people because of their digital presences-such as the physical arrest of a blogger because of something that they had written-or using digital tools to more efficiently accomplish what are pretty long-standing [physical] repressive techniques-whether that's arrest, ongoing surveillance of a target, or infiltration and disruption of an organization.

Then information controls are the use of digital tools to engage in repression.

Both types of digital repression have been reported in Russia.

There has been a considerable amount of concern that digital and social media technologies help people who would suppress dissent more than they help protesters.

Is it possible to predict whether Russia's latest increase in digital repression will succeed or backfire?

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