Culture and Entertainment

Culture and Entertainment

Authoritarian-induced censorship permeates the art, film, television, professional sports, and video game industries in democratic settings.

Entertainment

Overview

Authoritarians recognize the powerful appeal that entertainment and cultural expression can generate, particularly in the digital era as new multimedia channels and social media formats enable the rapid dissemination of messages and can reshape perceptions among mass audiences. In the culture and entertainment industries—including the arts, film, television, sports, and video games—authoritarian powers have developed ever more sophisticated forms of cultural propaganda. Through a combination of traditional and digital mechanisms, they are also moving beyond censorship and propaganda to manipulate public expression through artistic and cultural mediums at their source.

Authoritarian regimes use multiple methods, including leverage of the private sector, to harness information resources within their borders and amplify their power beyond them. The economic clout of Beijing, in particular, allows it to exploit commercial and financial relationships to insist that foreign cultural institutions and entertainment firms comply with its censorship preferences. While overt censorship mechanisms are easier to observe, these efforts also induce an implicit understanding of taboo issues among the purveyors of culture, potentially resulting in self-censorship on a far wider basis that is more difficult to measure. 


Sharp Power Influence

In the realm of high culture, art galleries, museums, theaters, and cultural festival organizers have faced both financial and official government pressure not to host shows and exhibits featuring artists whose work offers an independent perspective that differs from the version of history or events preferred by an authoritarian regime.

The global film industry is becoming an instrument for authoritarian powers to advance their preferred narratives. Filmmakers in Hollywood and beyond are increasingly making decisions about their films—including the content, casting, plot, dialogue, and settings—based on an effort to avoid antagonizing officials who control whether their films gain market access. Both state and private Chinese media and internet firms have bought up studios, talent agencies, and top human resources to further establish their influence abroad. 

Authoritarian states also invest resources in international sports, both through sponsorship and broadcasting rights as well as ownership of professional sports teams and hosting major sporting events. This level of financial influence allows authoritarian actors to erase figures and issues they deem undesirable, including teams and individual players whose public remarks run afoul of political sensitivities. 

Sharp power also enters the video game space, where foreign companies have catered to authoritarian political priorities by censoring terms and phrases from online gaming forums, withdrawing prize money from players critical of the authorities, and altering game settings and characters. 

Autocrats are not agnostic about freedom of expression or association. The organizing principles of these systems require the control of speech and ideas and the elimination of independent groupings or power centers in society.

Entertainment
Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig

A Full-Spectrum Response to Sharp Power: The Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Open Societies

Democratic Responses

Cultural institutions and entertainment firms serve as important gatekeepers of expression and constitute a critical sector of civil society that can contribute to ensuring the vibrancy and authenticity of cultural expression within open societies.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Leaders in the entertainment industry that have historically championed free speech should make a commitment to resisting censorship from governments around the world that seek to sideline certain topics.
  • Authors should resist censorship that alters their arguments or distorts major historical and political events. 
  • Industry leaders must develop a set of best practices on how to respond to governmental requests to modify and censor content, and those practices should affirm and protect artistic freedom. 
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Journalists can help draw attention to and expose individual examples of censorship of artists, performances, museum exhibits, and other public displays in the cultural and entertainment sphere that might otherwise go unreported. They can do so by creating and publicizing open solicitations for information about instances of censorship that allow whistleblowers to remain anonymous.
Education and Awareness
  • The entertainment industry must shine a light on the more generalized and less explicit pressures that censorious governments can bring to bear, specifically the types of pressures that encourage self-censorship and that shrink the space for honest and fearless storytelling.
  • Entertainment companies commit to publicly sharing information on all censorship requests received by foreign governments for their films. Such disclosure could take the form of an annual report similar to the disclosures that technology platforms make regarding government take-down requests and their responses.

Culture and Entertainment

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers exert influence beyond their borders in the arts sector and the film, television, sports, and video games industries.

Latest Resources

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Source: Jerusalem Post

Publication Date: September 28, 2023

Sweden Accuses Iran of Targeted ‘Misinformation’ about Quran Burnings

Authoritarian Country: Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Europe, Sweden

Author: Seth J. Frantzman

View Resource: Sweden Accuses Iran of Targeted ‘Misinformation’ about Quran Burnings

Iran and Russia-backed disinformation campaigns have used recent Quran burnings to manipulate sentiments in Sweden. Fearing the effects of these malign efforts, the Swedish government has tasked its Agency for Psychological Defense with countering these campaigns.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

Publication Date: September 18, 2023

China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Felix K. Chang

View Resource: China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Politics Over Economics

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been expected to enter a new phase following the PRC’s Third BRI Forum in October 2023. With over 150 countries participating in the BRI, China’s plans for its signature initiative have appeared increasingly political and less focused on infrastructure development.

Source: Middle East Institute

Publication Date: September 2, 2023

Iran Gleefully Eyes the Protests in Israel, Looking for Weaknesses to Exploit

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Israel

Author: Jason M. Brodsky

View Resource: Iran Gleefully Eyes the Protests in Israel, Looking for Weaknesses to Exploit

In addition to violent intervention through proxy militia groups, Iran has used cyber interference to exacerbate political rifts in Israeli society and advance Iranian interests. Iran-backed disinformation campaigns have misled high-level officials and target Israelis across the political spectrum.

Source: Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Publication Date: October 30, 2023

HispanTV Is Iran’s Propaganda Arm in Latin America; Why Is It Still Being Broadcast?

Authoritarian Country: Iran

Affected Region: Latin America and the Caribbean

Author: Emanuele Ottolenghi, Marina Rosenberg

View Resource: HispanTV Is Iran’s Propaganda Arm in Latin America; Why Is It Still Being Broadcast?

HispanTV, Iran’s Spanish-language media outlet, has spread disinformation to influence global narratives surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict. The state of Iran has used HispanTV as a platform to defend Hamas, espouse antisemitic rhetoric, and glorify violence.

Source: The Diplomat

Publication Date: October 17, 2023

Indonesia, China Vow to Expand Economic Cooperation

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Indonesia

Author: Sebastian Strangio

View Resource: Indonesia, China Vow to Expand Economic Cooperation

The third Belt and Road Forum, in October 2023, demonstrated that many Southeast Asian leaders see China as the key to their nations’ prosperity, helping them to build infrastructure and adopt new technologies. That dependence may discourage leaders from challenging China’s anti-democratic rhetoric.

Source: New York Times

Publication Date: October 11, 2018

Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist’s Fate

Authoritarian Country: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Robin Pogrebin, Sopan Deb

View Resource: Museums Forced to Reassess Saudi Ties Amid Uproar Over Journalist’s Fate

Prominent New York museums have accepted funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi governments, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and despite labor concerns in the UAE. Most museums maintained these relationships after the murder, allowing the regimes’ influence to persist unchecked.

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