Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1 Can tech save democracy?
The Pegasus spyware scandal is the latest in a series of affronts to liberal democracy made possible by emerging technology. But a promising software has allowed over a million people to circumvent government censors in Cuba, and it’s sponsored by the U.S. federal government.
2 Will immigration strengthen the far right?
Customs and Border Protection is reporting historic levels of arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border, and crises in Cuba and Haiti could mean that hundreds of thousands more migrants arrive at our borders, inflaming American politics. What could an immigration crisis mean for the far right?
RDI is excited to launch our fall “Meet the Candidates” series, where we will bring in candidates from across the political spectrum who are committed to renewing liberal democracy in America today.
Join RDI on August 12 at 6 pm EDT for a virtual discussion between MA gubernatorial candidate, Harvard Professor Danielle Allen, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times columnist Bret Stephens on Democracy, Demagogues, and the Story of America.
Tickets are free, but limited, and are first-come, first-served. Please reserve your spot now, while seats are still available! We hope you can also join our private conversation, post-event, with Allen and Stephens. We can’t wait to see you there!
RDI is hiring for a variety of internship positions this fall! Visit our careers page to learn more.
1 Can tech save democracy?
Illustration by Moon Ng
Last Sunday, a consortium of 17 media companies published a series of explosive reports outlining months of research on how governments are using a little-known software to spy on journalists, dissidents, and political rivals. The spyware, known as Pegasus, was developed by the Israeli-based NSO Group and sold exclusively to national governments, ostensibly for monitoring and tracking terrorists and criminals. According to reports from the Washington Post, however, Pegasus was likely used to covertly access more than 50,000 phones, including those of 14 heads of state and hundreds of public officials.
Pegasus is but the latest example of the increasingly complicated relationship between the tech industry and democracy. On the one hand, social media platforms aided the Arab Spring and Hong Kong’s democracy protests; on the other, Twitter hosted Russian troll farms, Facebook sold private data to influence an election, and the YouTube algorithm lulled Americans into extremism.
Given all that’s happened, we wouldn’t blame you for thinking that tech is working solidly in favor of autocrats. But buried beneath the headlines of the Pegasus breaches lies a much more promising story: 1.4 million Cubans gained uncensored access to the internet in defiance of the communist regime thanks to a tool called Psiphon, partially funded by the U.S. government.
What is Psiphon?
Psiphon is a digital tool designed to allow people to connect to the internet, circumventing government censorship which makes it difficult or impossible to do so. It’s often referred to as a virtual private network (VPN), which is a similar tool but not quite the same. VPNs encrypt your connection to the internet and make government monitoring difficult. In countries with serious internet restrictions, VPNs allow citizens to freely access the internet. The problem is that they’re not very difficult for a motivated regulator to shut down. Psiphon sacrifices some of the anonymity a VPN provides, instead prioritizing access. By employing a combination of tactics, the tool can confuse and bypass censors’ efforts to block its signal. If censors identify and block one connection, Psiphon will then establish another. For people living under authoritarian regimes, Psiphon can mean the difference between free expression and constant surveillance.
Though Psiphon is drawing attention this week, its first success wasn’t in Cuba. During the 2018 Iranian protests, up to 10.5 million Iranians circumvented internet restrictions with the help of Psiphon. In Belarus last year, as dictator Alexander Lukashenko brutally suppressed protests, the use of Psiphon exploded almost overnight. Before the August 9th presidential “election,” about 10,000 Belarusians were using Psiphon. By August 11th, Psiphon reported over 1.7 million Belarusian users, about 18% of the country. And in Myanmar, Psiphon reported about 5,000 daily users prior to the February 1st coup that restored the military junta. Since then, Psiphon has grown to 1.6 million daily Burmese users. Across the world, freedom-loving people turn to Psiphon to resist the control of oppressive governments.
How can democracies harness technology against authoritarians?
Psiphon is a powerful tool, but it’s particularly encouraging that the project is backed by a coalition of democratic governments including E.U. countries, the U.K. and the U.S. Internet freedom initiatives in the U.S. date back to George W. Bush’s presidency, and have expanded since. Between 2008 and 2012, the U.S. allocated $100 million to develop “1) anti-censorship technology, 2) secure communications technology, and 3) digital safety training.” Since 2012, the Open Technology Fund, funded by the federal government, has supported more than 100 internet freedom projects, including Psiphon. These initiatives seek to tap into private sector ingenuity to fund innovative projects that aren’t directly operated by the American government.
As a result, these initiatives are a far cry from the heavy-handed foreign intervention which has damaged America’s reputation in the past. This isn’t the CIA trying to slip Castro an exploding cigar or smuggling arms to bands of anti-communist rebels accused of war crimes. With tools like Psiphon, democracies are merely aiding companies that extend the fundamental right of free expression to individuals who have been unjustly stripped of it. Despite authoritarians’ best efforts to dismiss unrest as American meddling, services like Psiphon enable democracy movements to help themselves.
What could the future bring?
Autocracies are on the offensive, and they’ve made it clear that the internet is a battlefield for political ideology. As the West struggles to contain the influence of Russian and Chinese trolls and propagandists, it’s time for the free world to launch a counter-offensive of its own. While Psiphon is a fantastic tool, there’s still more work to do to ensure that the oppressed have every opportunity to resist censorship. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a recent editorial, we have other technology besides Psiphon to enable internet access. We can’t run disinformation campaigns to affect sham elections, but providing everyone with unrestricted internet access is a powerful tactic. There’s no greater threat to an authoritarian regime than free thought, and it’s our job to encourage it as best we can.
2 Will immigration strengthen the far right?
In this August 24, 1994 photo, Cuban refugees stranded on a makeshift raft float in the open sea about halfway between Key West, Florida, and Cuba, as the exodus from their homeland continued. AP Photo/Hans Deryk
The United States is facing an unprecedented surge in immigration this year as countries to our south struggle with economic crises, widespread gang violence, and an unceasing pandemic. In June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported 188,829 encounters with immigrants, the largest single month total in recent memory. Just this year the CBP has made more than 1 million arrests of undoumented immigrants, which is already the highest figure since 2006. Three months remain in the reporting period, so 2021 is bound for a historic total.
But the story’s not over yet. As Cuban protests progress through their second week and the Haitian crisis continues following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the United States could receive tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees in the near future. Despite the very legitimate reasons for people to flee either country, the Biden administration has been quick to condemn any potential wave of migration. In the words of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, “Do not risk your life attempting to enter the United States illegally…You will not come to the United States.”
While the Biden administration’s official stance won’t earn any points from human rights advocates, political strategists certainly understand where they’re coming from. To put it simply, the effect of a mass immgration crisis on American politics could be nuclear. If any single thing can mobilize the far right, it’s immigration.
Are conservatives anti-immigration?
It would be a mistake to think that all conservatives are inherently against immigration. As RDI Advisory Board Member Bret Stephens points out, immigrants in America often uphold conservative ideals of model citizens better than native-born Americans. They’re twice as likely to start a business, they’re more likely to go to church, their children are more likely to have married parents, and they’re less likely to go to prison. The George W. Bush administration argued in defense of immigrants in a report entitled “Immigration’s Economic Impact.” The report cited economic data suggesting that immigrants working in the United States don’t just increase their own wages, they also increase the economic productivity of the rest of the country by an estimated $37 billion per year.
Still, unregulated immigration has the potential to aid the nativist wing of the Republican party, damaging Republican moderates’ electoral prospects in the process. Trump, of course, entered politics promoting the “birther” conspiracy and based his campaign on building a wall to keep immigrants out. More recently, following Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appeal for backup, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem accepted a billionaire’s pledge to foot the bill for sending 50 national guardsmen to patrol the Mexican border. By March, 22% of Republicans considered immigration to be America’s greatest problem, up from just 7% a month earlier. In the words of a Republican strategist, the impending immigration crisis is “off the Richter scale in terms of importance for the Republican electorate.”
Are conservatives anti-immigration?
It’s impossible to predict, but Europe’s experience with the Syrian refugee crisis suggests that it could dramatically benefit far-right, nativist politicians. There is a direct correlation between how many immigrants arrived in a European country and how much support for far-right parties’ increased, according to one economic analysis. Another study noted that the far-right Freedom Party of Austria doubled its vote total from 2009 to 2015, with almost all of its gains coinciding with increases in refugee populations. Meanwhile the German military has struggled to control far-right, anti-immigrant factions in their ranks since the Syrian refugee crisis. One soldier made headlines for posing as a Syrian immigrant to infiltrate the German refugee system while the army had to disband an elite unit for its radical beliefs.
If Europe is any lesson, an immigration crisis could lead the Republican party even further from being the party of John McCain to that of Steve Bannon. Hillary Clinton, observing the German political situation in 2018, said “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame… if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
For better or for worse, she was absolutely right.
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