Nurhak Polat

Digital authoritarian: Practices of digital-datafied surveillance

Digital technologies provide governments with new tools to control and surveil citizens as well as to influence political tensions, discourses and practices. In conjunction with the current rise of populist discourses, far-right ideological and authoritarian tendencies in different parts of the world and their utilization raises many questions: Does the emergence of more sophisticated surveillance/sousveillance technologies jeopardize or fortify democracy, or simply strengthen existing power relations? Does “digital” just bring up an update to democracies and authoritarianisms “with an adjective” (Collier/Levitsky 1997)? Or do governments and power holders just adopt more diverse techniques in the exercise of power? Current research tends to answer these questions neither in a technology deterministic nor typically dichotomic manner towards authoritarian resurgence and democratic resilience. Rather, it primarily looks at how practices of how democracy and authoritarianism are staged, realigned and legitimized both situatively and contextually (Glasius 2018; Michaelsen/Glasius 2018).

My proposed research project is interested in practices that are at the intersection of digital technologies, authoritarian practices and surveillance. Taking Turkey and Germany as case studies, I will be exploring to what extent and in which form digital technologies, especially AI- and Big Data driven technologies, are involved in the construction and transformation of surveillance, manipulation of public opinion as well as democratic and illiberal practices. In both countries, these technologies are involved in the current struggles around the meanings of democracy and the discourses deferred to them in very different ways. They do not only create more sophisticated capacities for control and freedom, but also for extending and blurring the boundaries between authoritarian, illiberal and liberal surveillance power. Privileging digital authoritarian practices as the observational unit – rather than states or regimes  – pursues a threefold aim. First, this may help to grasp empirically and analytically the entangled forms of coevalness of democratic, illiberal and authoritarian elements within democratic structures (and vice versa) (cf. Flader/Polat/Randeria 2019). Secondly, this would avoid the reduction of authoritarian practices along a vertical logic of surveillance power – as imagined by Orwell (Bigo 2014). They could be decentralized – in digital codes, expanded networks of surveillance and algorithmic cultures. And third, to capture the different local moments and effects of “digital authoritarianism(s)” (Michaelsen/Glasius 2018). Critical scholars raise the alarm that digital, datafied surveillance technologies give “soft authoritarian tool kit” (Schatz 2009) and, about sort of “weaponizing” for authoritarian proposes, as in the case of China and Russia, in form of authoritarian package, consisting of devices, policies, mentalities and know-how of that can be literally tailored to the local conditions and particular political interests (Polyakova 2019).[1]

In the digital age, as Michaelsen and Glasius argue, authoritarian and illiberal practices may occur “below, above or beyond the state“ (Glasius 2018: 523). Authoritarian practices  or the “authoritarianness” of practices should be analyzed and measured according to their potential to contribute to a “sabotage of accountability”, i.e. practices that limit the accountability of those governing towards the population. A practice-oriented approach is better suited, so Glasius, to examine the shifts within democracies and to develop an understanding of authoritarianism. It might also helpful to illuminate different political strategies for blurring regime boundaries and concealing authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies as well as for overcoming divides and biases, such as digital/analogue, authoritarian/democratic, and state surveillance/self-surveillance. By focusing on accountabilities, the authors identify three central dimensions: “arbitrary surveillance”, “violation of freedom of expression” and “secrecy and disinformation”. The first is defined as an illiberal practice if it results in organised invasions of privacy. The second is to be understood as an authoritarian practice if there are a distinctly organised and patterned actions to manipulate and to tyrannize freedom of expression and information. According to the authors, the latter is to be explored both as an illiberal and as an authoritarian practice. Thus, the research moves beyond the democratic structures – such as elections – and into the complex, digitally and analogously intertwined practices that expand state power by using an elaborated and existing algorithmic and data-based surveillance architecture – in both illiberal-authoritarian and liberal-democratic contexts.

As my project is interested in the coevalness of and oscillations between anti-democratic, illiberal and authoritarian elements, Turkey and Germany offer categorically different and contradictory examples. Turkey exemplifies, under the specific case of neoliberal-authoritarian JDP (Justice and Development Party), a digital authoritarianism in its own way. Currently, it fluctuates, as it has already in the past, within a range of autocratic to oligarchical despotic state power. Basically, this had always (bio)political components of demographic and different kind of divides – such as secular-religious, conservative and left-right. In the beginning, the JDP’s strategy was to strive for democratic changes. It turned with gradually, highly pragmatic and ambivalent shifts in perspectives from ‘democratic openings’, for example regarding ‘Kurdish Issue’, gender and demography policies and so on, to an authoritarian rule. Starting with 2007 and especially in the aftermath of the coup attempt in 2016, JDP moved towards an authoritarian style with Islamistic, nationalist and anti-gender components. Not surprisingly, all surveillance practices were intensified and turned to elaborate databased surveillance machinery “to be omniscient of all dimensions of social life” (cf. Topak 2017). Thus, digital authoritarian practices do not only include restrictions on and shutdowns of Internet, but also more sophisticated and intrusive use of different apps, malware tools by law enforcement agencies, trolling and hacking. In Germany, a European liberal-democratic country, we observe some ongoing processes that might demonstrate some aforementioned entangled coevalness of illiberal and democratic elements. Be it – to name just a few – the subtle expansion of police control through digital surveillance technologies, the shifts in legal assumptions and categories such as in the case of the introduction of the concept of “potential threat” (Gefährder) in the Bundesgesetze (see Austermann/Schlichte 2018) as well as online searches, video surveillance, data retention, cyber-security strategies, states’ trojans. They represent a subtle, in part insidious and arbitrary dismantling of democratic structures and rights; a process that is newly formed and adjusted in partly polarized discourses and a rhetoric around national security and demography politics, and border regimes by a juxtaposition of responsibilities of (universal) values of human rights as such and humanitarianism. As we observe in different European countries, new policies and practices that also emerge in Germany are “democratic in form, illiberal in content” (Brumlik). Publicly, it is considered to introduce a sort of re-adjustment of democratic structures that involve the use of authoritarian measures in surveillance, policing and managing the national and European so called socio-demographic “crisis”. Such digital authoritarian measures and practices seem to be justified under the motto that society demands more security. My project aims also to capture ethnographically these shifts at the very local intersections of the dominant surveillance cultures, government practices, logics of security; and of course, their transnational dynamics.


Austermann, Nele /Schlichte, Gianna Magdalena (2018) Gefährliche Begriffe?! Über „Gefährder“ und drohende Gefahren. KJ Kritische Justiz, 51 (4): 479-494.

Bigo, Didier (2014) Diagonal mass surveillance: Gulliver versus the Lilliputians []

Collier, David/Levitsky, Steven (1997) Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research. World Politics, 49 (3): 430-45

Flader, Ulrike/Polat, Nurhak/Randeria, Shalini (2019) Soft Authoritarianisms: Comparative Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Kick-off workshop for the interdisciplinary research group. WoC – Worlds of Contradiction Collaborative Research Initiative, University of Bremen/21 March 2019.

Glasius, Marlies (2018) What authoritarianism is … and is not: a practice perspective, International Affairs 94 (3): 515-533.

Michaelsen, Marcus/Glasius, Marlies (2018) Authoritarian Practices in the Digital Age. Introduction. International Journal of Communication 12: 3788–3794.

Schatz, Edward (2009) The Soft Authoritarian Tool Kit: Agenda-Setting Power in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Comparative Politics 41 (2): 203-222.

Topak, Özgün E. (2017) The Making of a Totalitarian Surveillance Machine: Surveillance in Turkey Under AKP Rule. Surveillance & Society 15(3/4): 535-542.

[1] Sociologist Alina Polyakova put it pointedly in a podcast, every aspiring authoritarian can now buy such a package. See: „Digital Authoritarianism: A conversation with Alina Polyakova“. ( ) (Online, 26.03.2019, access 10.05.2019)