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: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: July 19, 2022

Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: How Australia’s Civil Society Led the Way

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Australia, Asia-Pacific

Author: John Fitzgerald

View Resource: Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: How Australia’s Civil Society Led the Way

Australian civil society was years ahead of the government and its agencies in exposing PRC surveillance and interference among local diaspora communities and in working to defend the rights of those belonging to these communities as equal citizens of Australia.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: July 19, 2022

Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Taiwan’s Democracy Under Fire

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Taiwan, Asia-Pacific

Author: Ketty W. Chen

View Resource: Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Taiwan’s Democracy Under Fire

The Chinese Communist Party continues to launch influence operations against Taiwan, often using proxies to serve PRC aims. One factor working in Taiwan’s favor as it resists these efforts is the commitment of its robust and vibrant civil society to defending the island nation’s democracy.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: July 19, 2022

Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Transparency Wins in Europe

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North Macedonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Czechia, Europe

Author: Martin Hála

View Resource: Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Transparency Wins in Europe

Making friends among foreign political elites through united front work, “economic diplomacy,” corruption, and other means allows Beijing to repurpose coopted institutions for its own agenda, undermining democratic systems from within. It is the role of democratic civil society to expose these efforts.

Source: Swedish National China Centre

Publication Date: July 10, 2022

Purchasing with the Party: Chinese Consumer Boycotts of Foreign Companies, 2008-2021

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

Author: Viking Bohman, Hillevi Pårup

View Resource: Purchasing with the Party: Chinese Consumer Boycotts of Foreign Companies, 2008-2021

Consumer boycotts, including one-third which were found to be supported by party- or state-affiliated organizations, presented new challenges for foreign businesses seeking to capitalize on the significant purchasing power of Chinese citizens.

Source: Alliance for Securing Democracy

Publication Date: June 14, 2022

China and the Digital Information Stack in the Global South

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Jamaica, Asia-Pacific, Uganda, Burma, Thailand, Nigeria, Latin America and the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa

Author: Bryce Barros, Nathan Kohlenberg, Etienne Soula

View Resource: China and the Digital Information Stack in the Global South

To counter digital authoritarianism, civil society must learn how the PRC party-state uses its influence to shape, influence, control, surveil, and suppress information that is contrary to the PRC and Chinese Communist Party’s goals or critical of those institutions or other autocrats.

Source: Foreign Affairs

Publication Date: June 8, 2022

China’s Southern Strategy

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Middle East and North Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa

Author: Nadège Rolland

View Resource: China’s Southern Strategy

Chinese policymakers are using economic incentives to gain influence in the “global South” and sway votes in international fora. Countries with independent media, nongovernment organizations, and strong civil societies are more likely to resist attempts at corruption, co-optation, and coercion.

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