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: Atlantic Council

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

China’s Discourse Power Operations in the Global South: An Overview of Chinese Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, South Africa, Iran, Venezuela, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean

Author: Kenton Thibaut

View Resource: China’s Discourse Power Operations in the Global South: An Overview of Chinese Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East

Case studies on South Africa, Venezuela, and Iran reveal evidence of a symbiotic relationship between Beijing’s efforts to enhance its discourse power—including by co-opting the voices of foreign leaders—and local governments’ efforts to weaken the checks and balances that civil…

Source: The Diplomat

Publication Date: April 15, 2022

The CCP’s Ukraine War Propaganda

Authoritarian Country: Russia, China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Sarah Cook

View Resource: The CCP’s Ukraine War Propaganda

Three tactics played an outsized role in the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to shape public opinion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: flagship state media echoing Russian state disinformation, manipulation of social media hashtags, and censorship of alternative viewpoints and information…

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: April 14, 2022

How Beijing Runs the Show in Hollywood

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North America, United States

Author: Aynne Kokas

View Resource: How Beijing Runs the Show in Hollywood

The relationship between PRC rules, the Chinese entertainment industry, and U.S. media conglomerates underscores a transition in the role of entertainment in politics. Beijing increasingly weaponizes technology and corporations’ dependence on political authorities for market access to control content.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: April 14, 2022

China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Samantha Hoffman

View Resource: China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism

Emerging technologies, particularly those utilizing big data, are a critical component of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to manipulate global audiences. Large datasets can reveal trends in human behavior, enabling the party-state to better understand public sentiment and disseminate propaganda.

Source: Doublethink Lab

Publication Date: March 30, 2022

Analysis: How Ukraine Has Been Nazified in the Chinese Information Space?

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Ukraine, Europe

Author: Jerry Yu

View Resource: Analysis: How Ukraine Has Been Nazified in the Chinese Information Space?

Previously established cooperation agreements laid the groundwork for Russian and Chinese state media and state-linked social media to work in tandem to influence public opinion in China, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora in favor of the invasion of Ukraine on…

Source: Associated Press

Publication Date: March 29, 2022

How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Amanda Seitz, Eric Tucker, Mike Catalini

View Resource: How China’s TikTok, Facebook Influencers Push Propaganda

The Chinese Communist Party has built a network of social media personalities who proffer propaganda to users around the globe, operating in lockstep as they deflect international criticism of human rights abuses and advance Beijing’s talking points on world affairs…

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