Media and Information

Multimedia

Media and Information

Authoritarian influencers leverage propaganda, disinformation, censorship, and sway over content delivery systems to undercut the integrity of the information space.

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Overview

State dominance over political expression and communication is a fundamental component of authoritarian control. Increasingly, authoritarian leaders that restrict media freedom and manipulate discourse in domestic settings also seek to curate information flows abroad as a form of modern censorship.

Digital-era changes to the information ecosystem have allowed narratives crafted by authoritarian regimes to gain traction far beyond their countries’ borders. Social media and the internet have lowered barriers to entry, enabling new actors to operate as information gatekeepers. Independent media outlets, meanwhile, have become increasingly vulnerable to economic coercion as they struggle to sustain themselves in an unfriendly business environment.


Sharp Power Influence

Authoritarian influencers take advantage of this already challenging information environment to flood the international media market with often coordinated, state-sponsored content: 

  • State media outlets that lack accountable and transparent governance structures—like RT (Russia Today), Sputnik, Press TV, CGTN, and Xinhua, among others—privilege authoritarian narratives and sideline independent perspectives.
  • Content-sharing and coproduction agreements between state-backed and independent news outlets act as a conduit for insinuating regime-friendly content into local reporting.
  • Journalist trainings and exchanges organized by authoritarian powers emphasize the regimes’ achievements and educate foreign journalists on how to report from the official perspective.

Authoritarians also employ trolling, online harassment, and forms of digital disinformation at scale to silence political dissent, shape election outcomes, and undermine democratic institutions. New technologies developed by a thriving commercial sector that offers disinformation as a service are used to demoralize, distract, and divide publics.

Information is a weapon—and one that can be used against us. This is an uncomfortable truth for open, democratic societies. We like to think that our media ecosystem is self-sustaining.

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Edward Lucas

Firming Up Democracy’s Soft Underbelly: Authoritarian Influence and Media Vulnerability

Democratic Responses

Civil society can counter authoritarian sharp power in the media and information space. Familiarity with how authoritarian powers influence the information circulating in print publications, radio broadcasts, television programs, and social media feeds is a crucial first step.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Media outlets should enhance operational transparency by publishing details about commercial relationships, acknowledging partnerships and information sources, and implementing procedures for receiving public complaints about inaccurate information.
  • The media sector should resist authoritarian efforts to define the boundaries of free expression and association by affirming its commitment to democratic standards, like accountability and human rights, and letting these principles guide engagement with authoritarian actors.
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Social media platforms should identify more meaningful ways to work with researchers, journalists, and civil society organizations, for example, to identify emerging threats and problematic accounts tied to authoritarian actors. Platforms should ensure that content producers and independent voices critical of authoritarian influence have an avenue for appeal when encountering online harassment or other censorship efforts.
  • Democracy and rights-focused organizations should incorporate the specific challenges posed by authoritarian media influence into future initiatives, with coordination and support from funders.
Education and Awareness
  • Civil society can help address persistent political-literacy gaps about modern forms of authoritarian influence. Surge capacity for local civil society expertise will help address sharp power inroads in established and emerging democracies alike.
  • An understanding of authoritarian influence should be mainstreamed into nongovernmental work on media freedom, free expression, and internet freedom. A comprehensive mainstreaming strategy can build on existing initiatives and should include investigation and research, actions by media outlets, initiatives led by journalists’ unions and media owner associations, and civil society efforts. 

Media and Information

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers influence the media sector and information space in every region of the world.

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 society imposes.

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 sources.

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 “denazification” grounds.

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 like Russia’s war against Ukraine.

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