Has democracy lost to autocracy as a result of technology? – The Maine Campus

The University of Maine’s School of Policy and International Affairs hosted its annual debate on November 17th. Some graduate students have debated whether technological innovation is the reason democracy has lost to autocracy. In the end, the positive team won.

Dr. Kenneth Hillas, assistant professor of international affairs and moderator of the debate, revealed the rules for victory. Whichever team convinces more audience members to change their initial opinions on the debate statement wins.

The positive team started the debate.

“In 2021, last year, the world had the lowest levels of democracy we’ve seen in at least 30 years,” explained Mary Giglio, a graduate student in SPIA. “In fact, the world has not recorded so many democratic states since 1978, and only 15 democratized countries last year. [That’s] only 3% of the world population. This decline in democracy can be attributed to the rapid advancement of technology in recent years, technology that facilitates surveillance and repression through autocratic governance.”

Giglio, along with fellow graduate students Quil Kibak and Anosha Raziq, argued that digital surveillance makes it easier for autocratic governments to intimidate and oppress their citizens. If citizens feel that they are constantly being watched, their behavior is modified. Social media and the internet allow these systems to quickly identify and neutralize opposition.

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Support staff provided examples and case studies of citizen surveillance in China, Russia and Iran. In China, the Great Firewall — legislation and technologies created by the Chinese Communist Party to censor the internet — has been in place since 2000. Russia monitors phone calls and internet traffic. According to Giglio, evidence shows that Russia created disinformation campaigns that influenced the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

“A final example is Iran, where protests against both radical systems are in full swing. Protesters were afraid that the government would use facial recognition technology to identify and punish them,” Giglio said. “Additionally, the Iranian government is actively seeking to create its own national intranet that would be separate from the global internet and allow it to maintain much tighter control over what its citizens can see and share , which will negatively impact protesters’ ability to communicate and share. organize democratic protests.”

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On the dissenting side were Ryan Kirkpatrick and Dan O’Neill, who presented an equally convincing argument.

“Yes [technological advances] it really contributed to democracy,” Kirkpatrick said. “The Pew Research Center, in a 2018 poll, [reported that] Over two-thirds of Americans said the internet strengthens political advocacy and serves as a legitimate way to pursue real, tangible change.”

Kirkpatrick gave the example of the teenager who recorded the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, which sparked protests across the country. He also discussed Estonia and the nation’s advanced technological infrastructure that helps further citizen participation in the election process. According to Kirkpatrick, cell phones allow the general public to become activists and citizen journalists.

“Power is no longer strengthened in the hands of the regime. Instead, free technology can turn anyone into a writer, a poet, whatever it takes to fight against tyranny,” Kirkpatrick said.

In Myanmar, rebels can 3D print firearms for less than $100 to fight their militant government. This team also stated that without the use of social media and cell phones, the protests in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini would not have been so well known internationally and even nationally.

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O’Neill stated that the opposition’s argument failed to prove two things: democracy has been definitively lost, and it has failed because of technology. According to O’Neill, we currently live in a democracy, so it is clear that he has not failed. While his team acknowledges that the technology has its drawbacks, its benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

At the end of the two teams’ presentations and debriefings, the floor was open to audience members to ask questions. One person wanted to understand what the loss of the global competition suggested, and the debaters explained that it was meant to be open to the interpretation of the audience.

Although 18 people disagreed with the statement that democracy lost the global competition to autocratic governments due to technological innovation, the positive team won because they convinced three members of the audience to switch sides.

For more information about future events and the SPIA department, visit https://spia.umaine.edu/.

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