The silencing effect of digital transnational repression

February 26, 2020

Marcus Michaelsen’s new report examines the online efforts of authoritarian regimes to intimidate activists living abroad. Hivos is proud to have acted as a host organization for the one-year research project leading to the publication of this report.

Authoritarian regimes have long used a variety of repressive tools to control, silence, and punish dissidents living abroad. Yet the advent of the Internet – and its central role in activist communities – has changed the way these regimes intimidate those who dare speak out against them. Today, subtle but pervasive forms of online transnational repression are increasingly common. Activists living outside their homeland now face digital surveillance, threats, and smear campaigns designed to stifle their opposition and induce self-censorship.

Exploring tools used and their impact

Yet the extent to which these tools are used, as well as their overall impact, remain largely unexplored. What tools actually exist in these new digital “toolkits” of transnational repression? And how successful are they in disrupting cross-border information flows? Using the online efforts of Syria and Iran as examples, Marcus Michaelsen set out to find answers.

Through dozens of protected interviews with human rights defenders, journalists, digital security experts, and other civil society activists working in exile, Marcus saw firsthand the negative effects of these repressive tools. The Syrian and Iranian governments all engage in transnational online practices deliberately designed to interfere with the fundamental rights of activists – namely their rights to privacy and freedom of expression. As a result, targeted activists experience constant tension and stress. They also see their ties to their home country compromised, which inevitably alters the dynamics, impact, and outreach of diaspora activism.

There is no day when I open my email and I don’t have a phishing email.

Editor of an Iranian exile media organization

Surveillance, hacking, disinformation and threats

Marcus’ research reveals which digital technologies are at the heart of this repression. Tools most often used include online monitoring and surveillance, account and device hacking, aggressive disinformation campaigns, and online publication hacking. Their aim is to sow insecurity and mistrust in transnational networks, silence dissidents living in exile, and undermine cross-border relationships between exiled activists and their homeland communities.

In addition, threats – communicated digitally as well as in-person – abound, including threats from embassy agents and threats against the property rights of activists living abroad. In-country assets are routinely frozen, or threatened to be confiscated, if outspoken activists refuse to comply with regime directives.

They know that these people will be vocal abroad but at least they got rid of them inside the country.

Human rights defender

Online sphere a breeding ground for digital repression

All 52 interviewees agreed that the online sphere presents the perfect opportunity for repressive regimes to control free speech abroad. Digital technologies reduce the costs of exerting political control. They also enable regimes to monitor and respond to diaspora activism with greater scope and speed. Activists the world over rely on digital platforms to conduct their work – all the more so when operating in exile. But online expression and the use of social media create multiple points of entry for regime agents to attack via malware, online harassment, and smear campaigns. And when coupled with more traditional methods of repression, like threats against in-country family members or slander in state-run media, these types of digital threats become all the more terrifying and effective. They often force activists to choose between their work and their extended family’s safety.

All you need is to break the weakest link

Marcus found that many exiled activists still feel overwhelmed by the complexity of potential digital threats within the rapidly evolving online environment, despite the growing use of digital security precautions. These activists belong to networks in which a successful attack against the weakest link can lead to severe consequences for all involved. Their feeling of vulnerability is compounded by nagging doubts about the actual technical capabilities of regimes. Activists today can never be sure if their messages and work will remain protected, despite their best efforts and practices. This ultimately undermines the type of engaged and active work required to stand up to authoritarian regimes.

This ‘I don’t care’ attitude, this ignorance is sometimes also the result of a high level of stress. If you think about all the possibilities of getting hacked, then it can result in this attitude: OK, I will get hacked anyway.

 Syrian digital security trainer

As the report demonstrates, transnational digital repression poses both human rights problems and political problems. With transnational digital tools, authoritarian regimes not only make activists censor themselves. This form of repression also cuts exiled activists’ ties to their home countries and international organizations, media, and policy circles, preventing them from passing on critical information about authoritarian regimes.

Critical voices are needed

Now more than ever, these critical voices are needed. Their unique position must be strengthened to combat the expansion of online transnational repression. Threats against activists in exile and diaspora communities exemplify the broader trends of rising authoritarian politics and shrinking civic space. As long as repressive regimes are able to muzzle the voices of online opposition, civil society’s ability to use digital tools to coordinate, organize, and exchange ideas will be in danger.

Read ‘Silencing Across Borders: Transnational Repression and Digital Threats Against Exiled Activists’ in full here.

Find out more about Hivos’ Digital Defenders Partnership program that aims to increase the safety of human rights defenders under (digital) threat or attack, and improve the effectiveness of the digital emergency response network.

This report was made possible with, amongst others, the support of the host organization, Hivos, in particular the MENA team.

About Marcus Michaelsen

Marcus Michaelsen was an Information Controls fellow with the Open Technology Fund in 2018-19. He holds a PhD in Media and Communication Studies and has previously worked as a researcher for the “Authoritarianism in a Global Age” project in the Political Science Department of the University of Amsterdam. As of 2020, he continues to research digital technologies, human rights, and authoritarian politics in the Law, Science, Technology and Society research group (LSTS) at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.