Knowledge is power. For centuries leaders have tried to control the flow of information to preserve their rule. Today, the internet is a key part of this strategy. To carry it out, governments have plenty of options, including filtering and blocking content — tried-and-true methods for controlling the flow of information online. The rise of social media has given leaders yet another tool for keeping a lid on the opposition, managing unrest and tailoring the news of the day to fit their agenda.
The internet is constantly evolving — and with it, national and global policies to regulate the technology's use. Unfiltered access to and unmonitored movement of information through the network of computers pose a strategic risk for many states. Now that most countries have roughly 25 years of experience honing their strategies to handle the freedoms and cultural changes that the internet has unleashed, their tactics for manipulating it are becoming more sophisticated. This is the first installment of a five-part series examining the policies and tactics Iran, China, Turkey and Russia have devised to mitigate the threats — and exploit the opportunities — lurking online.
Every government — be it autocratic, democratic or somewhere in between — wants to exploit the internet to its advantage. Administrations even in liberal countries such as the United States have attempted to direct online discourse and to sway public opinion toward some outlets and away from others. And in more authoritarian states, manipulating internet use has become a critical aspect of domestic policy. The precise tactics governments use in their countries depend in large part on their priorities.
Countries have many tools at their disposal to police their citizens' internet use. The bluntest instrument is a direct intervention to cut access to certain websites, apps or services, or to the internet itself. Though highly effective, the tactic also carries with it significant drawbacks. Governments in China, Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are looking for ways to mitigate blowback as they restrict access to encrypted virtual private networks and messaging apps such as Telegram.
Manipulating the regulatory and political environment offers leaders a less disruptive option for controlling the media, including the internet. The governments in Turkey and Russia have been especially successful with this approach, engineering laws so they can compel internet service providers to remove offending content quickly. Last month, Uganda began implementing a similar tactic, allegedly to discourage social media use, with the introduction of a tax on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Other governments harness social media to promote their agendas and to drown out the opposition. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration, for instance, reportedly has created networks of automated social media accounts, known as Penabots, to overshadow online protest movements by promulgating hashtags and spam messages on Twitter — a technique called astroturfing, which gives the appearance of grassroots support. In Saudi Arabia, the government tried its hand at astroturfing last year when it apparently co-opted automated accounts to advance an obscure figure in the Qatari royal family as a potential alternative to Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. And the United States learned firsthand just how much chaos an adversary can sow through social media as bots linked to the Russian government disseminated disinformation across Twitter and Facebook in the runup to the 2016 presidential election.
To try to minimize cybersecurity threats from abroad, and to ensure their control over domestic internet use, more and more governments will work to move its infrastructure home. The European Union's recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation is a step in that direction, requiring companies to store their data on EU customers locally. Conservative politicians in Iran, meanwhile, are taking a different tack by advocating homegrown alternatives to apps such as Telegram. Still other countries, including Iran, China and Russia, are striving to set up their own networks to reduce domestic connectivity to the global internet.
Although most states around the world have attempted to modulate internet access in one way or another, four countries stand out for their online efforts to quash dissent at home and to repel rivals abroad. Iran, China, Turkey and Russia offer important test cases for the various tactics states can employ to restrict internet use among their populations, as well as the strategies underlying each technique. Their governments share not only a strong imperative to control the internet but also an understanding that completely cutting their connectivity is not a viable option. The internet is an unavoidable reality in practically every aspect of 21st-century existence. The challenge is how to manage it.