Beyond Propaganda

Foreign Policy: “This essay is adapted from the first in a series of publications by the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum on the politics of information in the 21st century.

Pity the poor propagandist! Back in the 20th century, it was a lot easier to control an authoritarian country’s hearts and minds. All domestic media could be directed out of a government office. Foreign media could be jammed. Borders were sealed, and your population couldn’t witness the successes of a rival system. You had a clear narrative with at least a theoretically enticing vision of social justice or national superiority, one strong enough to fend off the seductions of liberal democracy and capitalism. Anyone who disagreed could be isolated, silenced, and suppressed.

Those were the halcyon days of what the Chinese call “thought work” — and Soviets called the “engineering of human souls.” And until recently, it seemed as if they were gone forever. Today’s smart phones and laptops mean any citizen can be their own little media center. Borders are more open. Western films, cars, and search engines permeate virtually everywhere. All regimes are experimenting with at least some version of capitalism, which theoretically means that everyone has more in common.

Yet the story is far from straightforward. Neo-authoritarian, “hybrid,” and illiberal democratic regimes in countries such as Venezuela, Turkey, China, Syria, and Russia have not given up on propaganda. They have found completely new ways of pursuing it, many of them employing technologies invented in the democratic world.

Why fight the information age and globalization when you can use it?

Often, the techniques are quite subtle. After analyzing the real-time censorship of 1,382 Chinese websites during the first half of 2011 — 11,382,221 posts in all — researchers from Harvard University found that the government’s propagandists did in fact tolerate criticism of politicians and policies. But they immediately censored any online attempts to organize collective protests, including some that were not necessarily critical of the regime. One heavily censored event, for example, was meant to highlight fears that nuclear spillage from Japan would reach China….(More)”