Culture and Entertainment

Culture and Entertainment

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



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.

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.

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Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Publication Date: November 13, 2023

High-Tech Chinese ‘Border Scanners’ Raise Transparency, Privacy Questions In Serbia

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Europe, Serbia

Author: Sonja Gocanin

View Resource: High-Tech Chinese ‘Border Scanners’ Raise Transparency, Privacy Questions In Serbia

China has donated border surveillance technology to Serbia under the stated goal of combatting smuggling and human trafficking across the Serbia-Bulgaria border. The donated technology, manufactured by CCP-backed Nuctech, may provide Beijing access to the personal data of EU citizens.

Source: Center for European Policy Analysis

Publication Date: November 12, 2023

Russia’s Hand Seen in Moldovan Local Elections

Authoritarian Country: Russia

Affected Region: Europe, Moldova

Author: Marija Golubeva

View Resource: Russia’s Hand Seen in Moldovan Local Elections

Candidates from Moldova’s Chance party were banned from the November 2023 elections for accepting laundered Russian funds. Through strategic investments, Russia has employed regionalization and strategic ambiguity to sow distrust in Moldova’s central government and democratic institutions.

Source: New York Times

Publication Date: November 2, 2023

In a Worldwide War of Words, Russia, China and Iran Back Hamas

Authoritarian Country: China, Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Global

Author: Steven Lee Myers, Sheera Frenkel

View Resource: In a Worldwide War of Words, Russia, China and Iran Back Hamas

Russia, China, and Iran have launched information campaigns to amplify messaging from Hamas’s online propaganda efforts. Outlets including Russia’s Sputnik India and RT en Español have echoed anti-western rhetoric and coopted anti-imperial messages to influence audiences across the Global South.

Source: Coda Story

Publication Date: October 25, 2023

Inside the Brain of a Kazakh Smart City

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Eurasia, Kazakhstan

Author: Bradley Jardine

View Resource: Inside the Brain of a Kazakh Smart City

A small village in Kazakhstan has deployed Chinese surveillance technology ahead of government plans to create smart cities nationwide. Analysts have raised concerns over China’s access to the private data of Kazakh citizens and collaboration with China to target protesters and minority groups.

Source: Institute for Strategic Dialogue

Publication Date: October 24, 2023

Capitalizing on Crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to Exploit Israel-Hamas Information Chaos

Authoritarian Country: China, Iran, Russia

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Israel, North America, United States, Global

View Resource: Capitalizing on Crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to Exploit Israel-Hamas Information Chaos

State-linked social media accounts from Iran, Russia, and China have used the Israel-Hamas conflict to spread disinformation and anti-Western rhetoric. This disinformation includes manipulated videos, false claims about US involvement in the conflict, and dangerous demonization of Israeli civilians.

Source: Newsweek

Publication Date: October 22, 2023

Iran Joins Middle East Propaganda War on China’s TikTok

Authoritarian Country: China, Iran

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, China

Author: Aadil Brar

View Resource: Iran Joins Middle East Propaganda War on China’s TikTok

Iranian narratives on the Israel-Hamas conflict have proliferated on the popular Chinese short-video app Douyin. Iran has spread pro-Hamas and antisemitic propaganda to 1 million followers on Douyin, which Chinese state media has reposted.


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