In backsliding democracies, governments emulate Russian and Chinese digital censorship tactics

AidData research finds countries with less developed internet infrastructure may be more vulnerable to Beijing-style digital censorship regimes.

August 1, 2023
Jonathan A. Solis, Sarina Patterson
A person uses Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app banned by several countries, including Russia. Photo by Christian Wiediger via Unsplash, licensed under the Unsplash License.

A person uses Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app banned by several countries, including Russia. Photo by Christian Wiediger via Unsplash, licensed under the Unsplash License.

Would-be autocrats in places with poorly developed internet infrastructure are well-positioned to implement heavy-handed regimes of digital censorship. Recent research from AidData, examining the compounding influence of China and Russia in autocratizing countries, finds that it is more difficult for governments to implement widespread digital censorship once internet infrastructure is more developed. 

In partnership with the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit focused on advancing democracy worldwide, AidData recently completed a research study that examines the overlapping influences of China and Russia in five countries that have experienced democratic backsliding: Azerbaijan, Nicaragua, Serbia, Turkey, and Uganda. Drawing on a wide range of data sources, media watchdog reports, and key informant interviews, the report—Innovators and Emulators: China and Russia’s Compounding Influence on Digital Censorship—fills an important knowledge gap, as previous studies have tended to focus on Russian and Chinese influence separately. 

In the first stage of the project, the AidData research team—Catherine Andrzejewski, Ana Horigoshi, Abigail Maher, and Jonathan Solis—mapped the portfolio of specific digital censorship tools that governments in Russia and China use to censor their domestic digital content. 

“By “digital censorship tools,” we mean any instrument that enables governments to censor digital content. We tracked restrictive legislation, regulatory bodies that implement censorship, and forms of direct content and software censorship, as well as traditional tactics to influence citizens to self-censor their digital content,” said Abigail Maher, a former senior management research assistant at AidData and a co-author of the report. Maher is now an analyst at the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML), as well as an anthropology graduate student at William & Mary whose research focuses on the protection of cultural heritage in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. (She has also worked on a separate project with the CHML focused on tracking the construction and removal of pro-Russian monuments across Ukraine to understand how they are portrayed in media narratives, informed by AidData research on media ownership and Russian influence.) 

In a second phase, the team then repeated the work to document digital censorship tools in the five case study countries to see where their governments’ tactics overlapped with those of the Kremlin and Beijing. The countries differ in their levels of development and democracy, with Russia, China, and the West all vying for influence. 

The authors find that timing matters when installing a digital censorship regime. Two characteristics emerged in countries with entrenched digital censorship: the first is highly authoritarian governance, and the second is moving early on installing heavy digital censorship. “China was authoritarian long before the internet’s widespread development, both in terms of infrastructure and its citizens’ habits. The PRC invested early in digital censorship with its “Golden Shield” network in the early 1990s. This would eventually feed into the “Great Firewall” that grew more sophisticated as China’s internet infrastructure expanded,” said Dr. Ana Horigoshi, a Senior Research Analyst at Aidata and co-author of the report.

“Russia, on the other hand, experienced a brief opening phase and flirtation with democracy in the early 1990s at the dawn of the internet age. The Russian internet developed largely uncensored, eventually becoming entrenched in Russian society. Not until the early 2010s did the Kremlin begin to seriously commit to digital censorship, culminating with widespread censorship efforts following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine,” added Dr. Horigoshi. 

The report also found that, among the five case study countries, Uganda and Nicaragua stand out. Both have the least developed internet infrastructure, coupled with governance that is increasingly entrenching authoritarian institutions. By contrast, the paths of Azerbaijan, Serbia, and Turkey more closely resemble that of Russia.

“Though they currently lack the technological capacity to consistently censor, Uganda and Nicaragua are well-positioned to install more robust digital censorship regimes as their internet infrastructure grows, aided by legislation that gives widespread censorship powers to the government,” said Maher. “It may be easier for these countries to implement a “China standard” regime of digital censorship than for countries like Serbia and Turkey, where internet penetration is higher and norms and tastes around usership of Western apps and platforms developed early,” she added.

The study’s findings are concerning for other developing countries that share Uganda and Nicaragua’s development and governance profiles. “In deciding when and where to allocate funding to combat governments establishing digital censorship, development professionals and policy makers may wish to devote resources sooner to places with less internet infrastructure and lower internet penetration. The clock is ticking for the Ugandas and Nicaraguas of the world,” said Dr. Catherine Andrzejewski, a sociologist and senior research and evaluation specialist at The Cloudburst Group who co-authored the report.

“Although our analysis was not causal and did not examine the extent to which China and Russia are working with or against each other, this project represents an important first step for future research pursuing those aims,” said Dr. Horigoshi. In a volatile global environment with autocratization on the upswing and authoritarian states like China and Russia increasingly seeking to exert their influence abroad, more research is needed to shed light on how other countries are emulating their digital censorship tactics—as well as how democracies can best combat it. 

Jonathan Solis is a Research Scientist at AidData. Solis has studied media freedom and media resilience for nearly a decade. His recent academic research focuses on the factors influencing government censorship of the press; approaches to measuring media freedom; and the relationship between regime type and journalist killings.

Sarina Patterson is AidData's Communications Manager.