Forum Focus: February 2023

Monthly news from the National Endowment for Democracy‘s International Forum for Democratic Studies on global challenges facing democracy around the world.


“Democratic oversight is key to realizing a trajectory of

rights-respecting digitalization.”

– Larry Diamond speaking at a February 8th Forum EVENT on Smart Cities

In this special edition of the Forum Focus, the International Forum is spotlighting our work related to emerging technologies and their impact on democracy around the world. Through convenings and publications on cutting-edge topics like this, we have illuminated how rapid technological advances are testing democratic principles of governance. Recent analysis, featured below, has focused on the potential threat of smart cities technologies, the impact of ChatGPT and generative AI tools, and the rise of alternative social media platforms.

On February 8, the International Forum hosted a virtual discussion that examined smart cities in the context of democratic backsliding. Bárbara Simão of InternetLab and Roukaya Kasenally of the University of Mauritius, contributors to our recent report Smart Cities and Democratic Vulnerabilities, shared their findings on smart city governance in Brazil and Mauritius, with comments from Larry Diamond on the wider implications for struggling democracies. NED President Damon Wilson provided opening remarks and Program Officer Beth Kerley moderated the discussion. WATCH HERE

In the report, expert contributors examine how the rise of “smart cities” is challenging democratic systems and present strategies for rapidly digitalizing societies to safeguard norms such as transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights. Kerley’s opening essay highlights the risks posed by Smart City projects without effective democratic guardrails, explaining how they can undermine privacy, erode good governance norms, and amplify the influence of authoritarian actors. In the subsequent essays on Mauritius and Brazil, the authors examine how a lack of transparency and gaps in public control of these initiatives can quickly turn public safety into a guise for democratic recession. READ THE REPORT

The January edition of the International Forum’s Digital Directions newsletter highlighted the impact of generative AI models like ChatGPT, describing how such technology has the potential to scale counter-disinformation responses and preempt autocratic efforts to distort the information space. Other newsletter highlights include an examination of the Kremlin’s information operations in the Global South and lessons from Costa Rica about the protection of digital rights. (And, yes, a portion of the newsletter was written by ChatGPT.)

Digital Directions is a curated monthly newsletter on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy. Subscribe or share it with a friend here.

In December 2022, Anne Applebaum, staff writer at the Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, delivered the annual Seymour Martin Lipset Lecture on Democracy in the World, sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Embassy of Canada to the United States, and the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Applebaum described how authoritarian actors cooperate and learn from one another, with the aim of tightening their grip on power and enriching themselves and their allies. Recognizing the role of technological adaptation in this alarming trend, Appelbaum said, “If the leaders of the autocratic world are able to work together to cooperate with one another, if they can help one another suppress internal opposition and help teach one another how to use surveillance technology, then why can’t the democratic world also work together to push back against them?” Appelbaum labeled this phenomena as “Autocracy Inc.WATCH HERE.

On Wednesday, February 22, the Forum will host a virtual event launching its new report, Shielding Democracy: Civil Society Adaptations to Kremlin Disinformation about Ukraine, from 10:30 am—11:30 am EST. Featuring Peter Pomerantsev, Olha Bilousenko, Veronika Víchová, and Adam Fivenson, the conversation will share lessons learned from the coordinated effort to counter Moscow’s malign narratives, focusing on the critical role of civil society organizations in Ukraine and across Central and Eastern Europe. The event will be livestreamed on NED’s YouTube channel.

In a post for the Forum’s Power3.0 blog, Allie Funk of Freedom House outlined the rise of new alternative social media platforms in authoritarian contexts. These platforms, including India’s Koo, Russia’s VK and Odnoklassniki, Turkey’s BiP, and China’s WeChat and Douyin, present opportunities for authoritarian governments to exert control and influence over the information space, which could be combatted through the application of rights-based standards.

The latest episode of the Power3.0 podcast featured Smart Cities and Democratic Vulnerabilities co-author Roukaya Kasenally. She shares insights from her report on the Mauritius Safe City Project, finding that “such projects only erode further democratic processes, especially in fragile and declining democracies.” Roukaya highlights the Mauritian experience with China’s global smart city exports and details the broader dangers of digital development in the absence of democratic guardrails.

The International Republican Institute recently published an interview with Mexiro, a feminist anticorruption organization in Mexico, which discusses the need for cybersecurity protections for civil society organizations in the face of increased digital threats.

Freedom House released the Election Watch for the Digital Age tool, which tracks how internet platforms have an impact on critical elections around the world and monitors vulnerabilities to online disruptions in the electoral system.

A 2022 Forum report, The Global Struggle Over AI Surveillance, assessed the global spread of artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance tools. Author Steven Feldstein of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes ongoing efforts at the local, national, and multilateral levels to set rules for their design, deployment, and use.