Thousands of protesters demonstrate against a repressive regime after coordinating online. Counterinsurgency forces receive crucial tips through mobile devices distributed throughout the civilian population. Foreign agents flood social media platforms with targeted, divisive content ahead of a tense election. Over and over, changes in the flow of information — often enabled by developments in information communication technology, or ICT — precipitate key shifts in power. Yet these shifts often evade prediction, even as policymakers and academics alike race to understand their implications.
These changes in flow of information have implications for a range of crucial questions. When will an uprising grow into a revolution? Will the insurgency prevail? Will the democratic process be critically undermined? And so on. Such questions sit on top of a wealth of rigorous academic and policy work that helps shape our present understanding. In the face of rapid change, this strong work needs to be continually updated to reflect the often-subtle new mechanisms reflected by developments in ICT to enhance our understanding of these evergreen questions.
Take, for example, the case of cell phones in Sri Lanka.
In December of 2014, then-president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was blindsided when members of his inner circle broke rank to oppose him by rallying behind then-Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena. Supported by former allies of the incumbent, Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa weeks later in a national election.
How do autocrats hold onto power? According to Freedom House, a watchdog organization that tracks democratic trends, antidemocratic influences were on the rise in 2017, with 107 countries in 2017 earning a freedom status of “not free” or “partly free.” Considering these trends, and the number of autocratic rulers in countries of strategic importance to the United States, understanding how autocrats hold onto power is as urgent as ever. Some theories point to a country’s natural resources, or the leader’s relationship with the military.
To understand personal dictatorships, one theory recently discussed by political scientist Milan Svolik emphasizes the importance of a country’s ruling coalition — a group of elites (often political, military, and business) whose support can keep a leader in power. This group of elites may also contain potential challengers to the leader. In order to ensure their survival, a leader will commonly try to consolidate power by keeping a close eye on this ruling coalition and making the costs of mounting a challenge seem incredibly high in order to deter attempts.
One tactic is for a leader to make it incredibly expensive (or impossible) for members of the ruling coalition to coordinate about a potential uprising. Think heavy surveillance — phone tapping, planting listening devices, or other activities that make potential challengers believe that their communications are not private.
Freedom House characterized Sri Lanka under President Rajapaksa suffering an “authoritarian drift.” If Rajapaksa was in the process of consolidating his autocracy, how did his allies, who described the “soft dictatorship” he created, manage to coordinate a challenge under his watchful eye? Apparently, they took to cell phones. According to reporting from the New York Times, the defectors coordinated by phone, “swapping their telephones for ones they trusted not to be tapped, speaking in code and via group chats on Viber, a mobile app.”
It looks like a relatively simple technology played a role in the kind of shift in power that has domestic, regional, and international implications. These are the sorts of developments that call us to continually revisit our understandings of power flows — in autocracies and elsewhere — to reflect these subtle new mechanisms, while keeping a close eye out for future developments. In an age of rapid change, predicting these subtle tweaks could make all the difference in the world.
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