An expert's point of view on a current event.

Beyond Propaganda

How authoritarian regimes are learning to engineer human souls in the age of Facebook.

GettyImages-79146008 cropped
GettyImages-79146008 cropped

This is the first in a series of reports adapted from the Legatum Institute's "Beyond Propaganda" program.

This is the first in a series of reports adapted from the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” program.

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 center. 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.

Yet the story is far from straightforward. 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 employing technologies invented in the democratic world. Why fight the information age and globalization when you can use it?

Often, the techniques are quite subtle. After analyzing the real-time censorship of 1,382 Chinese websites during the first half of 2011 — 11,382,221 posts in all — researchers from Harvard University found that the government’s propagandists did in fact tolerate criticism of politicians and policies. But they immediately censored any online attempts to organize collective protests, including some that 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-organizing 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.

Elections can also serve as an authoritarian tool. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez would have elections so often that the opposition, which lacked the same level of funding and media access, never had the chance to compete. Chávez averaged some 40 hours of direct media time a week, including his own variety show, Aló Presidente, which ran every Sunday for as many hours as Chávez required. A mix of Jay Leno and Mussolini, the show allowed Chávez to share his views on anything from baseball to George W. Bush; to answer phone calls from the populace; to share personal anecdotes, fire ministers, announce the start of wars, or burst into song. International celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Danny Glover, and Sean Penn would appear on the show, lending their star power to the Chávez brand of permanent socialist revolution.

Meanwhile, Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro “drape censorship in the glove of the invisible hand” to muzzle dissent. Instead of shutting down critical media outlets, they simply make sure that they fail. “First,” writes Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, “media outlets are regulated so as to become economically uncompetitive: A newspaper, for example, might be denied a favorable exchange rate for importing printing paper; a broadcaster might regularly be hit with fines on spurious charges of libel or indecency. Second, once the business starts failing, a dummy corporation, sometimes owned anonymously, mysteriously appears and offers to buy it out, even generously. Third, despite initially assuring that the editorial line will remain unchanged, the new management soon begins to shed staff, likewise shifting coverage until its message becomes all but indistinguishable from the Panglossian views of the ruling party.”

A similar formula applies in Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also managed to skillfully integrate crony capitalism into his authoritarian media management. According to Turkish commentator Berivan Orucoglu, companies whose media businesses are sympathetic to the government win handsome state contracts in other sectors. Companies whose media are critical of the government lose government tenders and become targets of tax investigations.

For its opponents, this new propaganda can be hard to resist, particularly as the counter-narrative has become so much more elusive. In the 20th century, the democratic capitalism of the West had a powerful answer to Soviet totalitarianism: free markets, free culture, and free politics. Mercedes, merchant banking, rock ’n’ roll, and parliament were a more attractive proposition than Ladas, the Five Year Plan, the Red Army Choir, and the Politburo. But today’s neo-authoritarians are offering a new deal: You can have the trappings of a Western lifestyle — all the German cars, reality shows, Naomi Campbell, and blue-chip shares you desire — while having none of the political freedoms of the West and, indeed, despising the West.

A particularly bizarre example of this are the Night Wolves, the Russian Hells Angels sponsored by the Kremlin, who were instrumental in the annexation of Crimea. The Night Wolves tap into Western “cool,” riding around on Harley-Davidsons and hosting huge concerts with German heavy-metal music. At the same time, they worship Stalin and Putin and call openly for the resurrection of the Russian Empire. Along similar lines, Gary Rawnsley, professor of public diplomacy at Aberystwyth University, notes how Chinese propagandists, less colorful but equally liquid in their approach to ideology, “project deliberately contradictory messages.” Today’s Chinese “Communist” Party champions Confucius as well as the Cultural Revolution, and praises the stocks and shares of Shanghai alongside Maoist songs.

Clearly, simple indoctrination is no longer the goal. In a 2014 study, Haifeng Huang, an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced, looked at the political attitudes of 1,250 students at one of China’s “key national universities” (kept anonymous for the sake of security). Huang’s research showed that while students who attend propaganda courses might not believe the government is “good,” they do believe it is strong. “A sufficient amount of propaganda can serve to demonstrate a regime’s strength in maintaining social control and political order,” argues Huang. He calls this propaganda a form of “signaling” rather than “indoctrination”: The point is to intimidate, not to convince anyone of an ideological message.

Something like this is also at work in Syria. In her classic study, Ambiguities of Domination, Lisa Wedeen tried to understand why Syrians living under Hafez al-Assad’s rule in the 1990s repeated some of the regime’s palpably absurd claims, for example, that Assad was the country’s “greatest pharmacist.” Wedeen concluded that the falseness was the point: “The regime’s power resides in its ability to impose national fictions and to make people say and do what they otherwise would not. This obedience makes people complicit; it entangles them in self-enforcing relations of domination.”

According to longtime Syria-watcher (and ex-Financial Times correspondent) Abigail Fielding-Smith, Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s successor, now seeks to reimpose this model of complicity. The revolution against Bashar began in February 2011, when teenagers painted slogans about the Arab Spring on a wall in the town of Deraa. The security services’ reaction — arresting and torturing the teens — seemed extreme. But it followed from the logic of the regime, which requires citizens to demonstrate false loyalty, however absurd. Any breach in the code becomes powerfully subversive.

Today, official Syrian television continues to show unbelievably positive stories about the country’s progress, although everyone knows about the devastating civil war, whether through friends and relatives on the front or from the numerous alternative sources of media, satellite and online. But the regime is largely unbothered by this fact. In September 2011, Syrian TV tried to undermine Al Jazeera broadcasts of protests in Syrian cities by claiming that Qatar had built life-sized replicas of their main squares in order to stage fake protests there, which were then allegedly filmed by French, American, and Israeli directors. The goal, according to one Syrian journalist, is not to convince people that this bizarre story is true: “The aim is to confuse people” — to make it hard to understand what is true and what is false.

Assad isn’t alone in this. Many of the new authoritarians have realized that in the 21st century you don’t need to censor information all of the time, and you can’t do it anyway. But you can create enough disinformation to spoil the media space and prevent people from understanding what is happening. In Turkey, Erdogan has created conspiracy-mongering Twitter-bot squadrons. The Chinese have the so-called “50 Cent Party” — online scribes who are paid 50 cents for every pro-regime comment they post. The Kremlin uses “troll factories” to post pro-Kremlin messages and slander critics in Russia and abroad.

And the result? Take the Baltics, where large ethnic Russian minorities are exposed to radically different realities through local and Kremlin media. Research by the Open Estonia Foundation showed that ethnic Russians living in the country end up disbelieving both sides and struggling to form opinions. If anything, Russian Baltic audiences are more drawn toward Kremlin sources because they are more emotional and entertaining, offering them fantasies — invented tales of Russian children crucified by Ukrainian militants, for example. Respondents in focus groups among ethnic Russian audiences in Latvia said that news on Russian TV channels is “emotionally attractive, because some news you watch [like it’s] an exciting movie. You don’t trust it, but watch it gladly.”

If there is a competition between different versions of reality, in other words, the side that is less constrained by the truth may be more likely to win. But if this is the case, then the entire premise of liberal media is undermined. We have long believed that more information means better decisions and better democracy. If disinformation becomes a deluge, this may no longer be the case. We are also seeing the same trend in countries such as the United States, where different sides of the political spectrum are splitting off into separate realities — producing disinformation such as stories about the Democrats’ healthcare reform including “death panels,” or that President Obama was born outside the U.S.

Today’s autocrats, “illiberal democrats,” and their propagandists have learned how to use phenomena previously associated with democracy — elections, the Internet, the press, the market — to undermine freedoms. They have learned how to disrupt the soft power of liberal democracy with a liquid treatment of ideology. And they do so by using Western technology and Western money. While the EU and the U.S. government decry the disinformation, aggression, and war-mongering on Kremlin TV channels, it is worth keeping in mind that these networks are kept afloat by revenue made from Western advertising.

In the photo, a young man uses the internet at a net cafe in Chongqing, China.
Photo credit: China Photos/Getty Images

Peter Pomerantsev is a visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics. Twitter: @peterpomeranzev

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