To Repress or to Co-opt? Authoritarian Control in the Age of Digital Surveillance

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Abstract

This article studies the consequences of digital surveillance in dictatorships. I first develop an informational theory of repression and co-optation. I argue that digital surveillance resolves dictators' information problem of not knowing individual citizens' true anti-regime sentiments. By identifying radical opponents, digital surveillance enables dictators to substitute targeted repression for nonexclusive co-optation to forestall coordinated uprisings. My theory implies that as digital surveillance technologies advance, we should observe a rise in targeted repression and a decline in universal redistribution. Using a difference-in-differences design that exploits temporal variation in digital surveillance systems among Chinese counties, I find that surveillance increases local governments' public security expenditure and arrests of political activists but decreases public goods provision. My theory and evidence suggest that improvements in governments' information make citizens worse off in dictatorships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-325
Number of pages17
JournalAmerican Journal of Political Science
Volume65
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations

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