To launch its 'Beyond Propaganda' series, the Legatum Institute has published a collection of essays that explore how and why neo-authoritarian and ‘hybrid’ regimes have become more sophisticated in their use of propaganda in the 21st century.
Pity the poor propagandist! Back in the 20th century it was a lot easier to control an authoritarian country’s hearts and minds. All domestic media could be directed out of a government office. Foreign media could be jammed. Borders were sealed, and your population couldn’t witness the successes of a rival system. You had a clear narrative with at least a theoretically enticing vision of social justice or national superiority, one strong enough to fend off the seductions of liberal democracy and capitalism. Anyone who disagreed could be isolated, silenced, and suppressed.
Those were the halcyon days of what the Chinese call “thought work”—and Soviets called the “engineering of human souls”. And until recently, it seemed as if they were gone forever. Today’s smart phones and laptops mean any citizen can be their own little media centre. Borders are more open. Western films, cars, and search engines permeate virtually everywhere. All regimes are experimenting with at least some version of capitalism, which theoretically means that everyone has more in common.
But the pieces in this publication lay out a different story. Neo-authoritarian, “hybrid”, and illiberal democratic regimes in countries such as Venezuela, Turkey, China, Syria and Russia have not given up on propaganda, they have found completely new ways of pursuing it. Many of them use the technologies invented in the democratic world. Why fight the information age and globalisation when you can use it?
Often, the techniques are quite subtle. Analysing the real-time censorship of 1,382 Chinese websites during the first half of 2011—11,382,221 posts in all—researchers from Harvard University1 found that the government’s propagandists did in fact tolerate criticism of politicians and policies. But they immediately censored any online attempts to organise collective protests, including some which were not necessarily critical of the regime. One heavily censored event, for example, was meant to highlight fears that nuclear spillage from Japan would reach China.
That analysis made clear that the government’s priority is not to stop all criticism, but to undermine the self-organising potential of society. “The Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains,” the Harvard study concludes. Indeed, the Internet has turned out to be a useful tool of control: it allows people to “blow off steam”, and also gives the government a barometer to measure public opinion. Read more
This publication was launched at the Legatum Institute on Monday, 22 June 2015. Details here.
About the Beyond Propaganda Series
The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.
The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.