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.

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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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