Surveillance and the Contradictions of Digital Power: From Isaias Afewerki to Edward Snowden

February 7, 2019 9:00am

Dr. Victoria Bernal
Senior Research Fellow, KU Leuven, and Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine

This paper draws on my long-term research that analyzes Eritrean politics online, as well as my research on digital surveillance, cybersecurity, and privacy in relation to the U.S. security state. These two cases bring into focus the ways that contemporary struggles for democracy and threats to democracy are deeply entwined with digital media. The paper is partly the story of my research trajectory, explaining how my research as an Africanist could lead me to a focus on the U.S. and fieldwork in Silicon Valley. While my research on Eritreans and the internet has analyzed the ways Eritreans have used digital media to express themselves politically and to organize independently of the state, my research on the United States addresses issues associated with digital surveillance of its citizens by the American security state. These two examples highlight the contradictions of the potentials of digital media. I also suggest that viewing Eritrean politics and American politics together finds lines of convergence such that the dichotomy between northern liberal democracies and southern authoritarian, dictatorial regimes is becoming much less distinct.


Victoria Bernal is a cultural anthropologist whose scholarship in political anthropology contributes to media and IT studies, gender studies, and African studies. Her work addresses questions relating to politics, gender, migration and diaspora, war, globalization, transnationalism, civil society and activism, development, digital media, and Islam. Dr. Bernal’s research is particularly concerned with relations of power and inequality and the dynamic struggles of ordinary people as they confront the cruel and absurd contradictions arising from the concentration of wealth and political power locally and globally. She has carried out ethnographic research in Sudan, Tanzania, Eritrea, Silicon Valley and cyberspace. Her articles and chapters have appeared in various collections as well as in anthropological, African Studies, and interdisciplinary journals, including American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, American Anthropologist, Global Networks, Comparative Studies in Society and History, African Studies Review, and Political and Legal Anthropology Review. Selected publications are available below. Bernal teaches courses on Digital Media and Culture, Global Africa, Nations, States and Gender, and the Politics of Protest among others.

photo of Dr. Victoria Bernal