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Tamar Megiddo, College of Law & Business Astroturfing: Outsourcing Digital Domination under the Cover of Emergency

Governments regularly rely on citizens’ cooperation in exercising their authority, including the enforcement of rules. This is not necessarily illegitimate. In fact, as Jeremy Waldron has argued, citizens are always law’s first enforcers. Prior to any office holder, they apply legal rules to their everyday lives and, overall, orient their behavior accordingly. Without citizens’ cooperation law on the books cannot be realized ‘on the ground’.

Technology makes such reliance easier, facilitating increased enforcement of law at little cost. It enables governments to cooperate with commercial companies that collect data on their own accord; to build their own platforms to mobilize citizens, or to crowdsource data collected by citizens. Emergency provides a legitimizing logic. It encourages citizens, keenly aware of the disaster looming, to uncritically follow the government’s lead to reduce the risk to the nation and to themselves.

In recent work I have argued that governments utilize technology to target activists in a manner amounting to digital domination, thus threatening the freedom not only of activists, but of all citizens. This paper seeks to build on this conceptualization to problematize governments’ use of non-official actors (commercial actors, digital or actual militias, the public at large) to monitor and survey citizens.

One central concern this practice raises is that it potentially allows governments to circumvent the limits of their legitimate authority and to significantly augment their power while also obscuring the actor responsible for the action. Consequently, accountability and public oversight are diminished. This practice is colloquially known as “astroturfing”.

The paper considers the criteria for border-drawing in this context: where does innocuous enlisting of cooperation from law-abiding citizens end, and totalitarian mass mobilization of citizens against fellow citizens begin? Can outsourcing the right to monitor citizens to a commercial actor be justified and under what terms? And can the potentially devastating implications of such emergency augmentation of government powers be reversed in post-emergency times?

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