A technician inspects the backside of bitcoin mining at Bitfarms in Saint Hyacinthe LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Disrupting the Autocrats

Well-organized democracies have little to fear from cryptocurrencies – and their citizens may even end up paying lower credit card fees. But people whose political power is based on controlling information definitely have something new to worry about.

WASHINGTON, DC – The dawn of the Internet, it was widely believed, would herald a new era of democracy. Information would become free, in all senses, and this would pose an existential threat to regimes based on the control of knowledge, including those that had previously tried to close themselves off from the outside world.

Today, this vision looks tarnished, if not deeply flawed. Authoritarian rulers have figured out not only how to distort and control the flow of information within their own societies, but also how to confuse people in other countries and perhaps even disrupt previously well-functioning democracies. The more recent advent of social media may have disturbed the authoritarians slightly – remember the Arab Spring? – but there is no doubt that they have now regained their stride.

In almost all parts of the world, autocrats are becoming more secure in power, often behind a veneer of democracy and elections. Opponents are eliminated. The press is muzzled. And the flow of information is strictly controlled, through tools ranging from traditional regime-sponsored media outlets to more modern software or automated “bots.” According to the most recent Economist index of democracy, half the countries in the world were less democratic in 2017 than in 2016, and only 5% of the world’s population lives in a “full democracy.”

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