25 June 2015

Beyond Propaganda How authoritarian regimes are learning to engineer human souls in the age of Facebook.

JUNE 23, 2015

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?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.

That analysis made clear that the government’s priority is not to stop all criticism but to undermine the self-organizing potential of society. “The Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains,” the Harvard study concludes. Indeed, the Internet has turned out to be a useful tool of control: It allows people to “blow off steam” and also gives the government a barometer to measure public opinion.

Elections can also serve as an authoritarian tool.Elections can also serve as an authoritarian tool. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez would have elections so often that the opposition, which lacked the same level of funding and media access, never had the chance to compete. Chávez averaged some 40 hours of direct media time a week, including his own variety show, Aló Presidente, which ran every Sunday for as many hours as Chávez required. A mix of Jay Leno and Mussolini, the show allowed Chávez to share his views on anything from baseball to George W. Bush; to answer phone calls from the populace; to share personal anecdotes, fire ministers, announce the start of wars, or burst into song. International celebrities such as Naomi Campbell, Danny Glover, and Sean Penn would appear on the show, lending their star power to the Chávez brand of permanent socialist revolution.

Meanwhile, Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro “drape censorship in the glove of the invisible hand” to muzzle dissent. Instead of shutting down critical media outlets, they simply make sure that they fail. “First,” writes Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, “media outlets are regulated so as to become economically uncompetitive: A newspaper, for example, might be denied a favorable exchange rate for importing printing paper; a broadcaster might regularly be hit with fines on spurious charges of libel or indecency. Second, once the business starts failing, a dummy corporation, sometimes owned anonymously, mysteriously appears and offers to buy it out, even generously. Third, despite initially assuring that the editorial line will remain unchanged, the new management soon begins to shed staff, likewise shifting coverage until its message becomes all but indistinguishable from the Panglossian views of the ruling party.”

A similar formula applies in Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also managed to skillfully integrate crony capitalism into his authoritarian media management. According to Turkish commentator Berivan Orucoglu, companies whose media businesses are sympathetic to the government win handsome state contracts in other sectors. Companies whose media are critical of the government lose government tenders and become targets of tax investigations.

For its opponents, this new propaganda can be hard to resist, particularly as the counter-narrative has become so much more elusive. In the 20th century, the democratic capitalism of the West had a powerful answer to Soviet totalitarianism: free markets, free culture, and free politics. Mercedes, merchant banking, rock ’n’ roll, and parliament were a more attractive proposition than Ladas, the Five Year Plan, the Red Army Choir, and the Politburo. But today’s neo-authoritarians are offering a new deal: You can have the trappings of a Western lifestyle — all the German cars, reality shows, Naomi Campbell, and blue-chip shares you desire — while having none of the political freedoms of the West and, indeed, despising the West.

A particularly bizarre example of this are the Night Wolves, the Russian Hells Angels sponsored by the Kremlin, who were instrumental in the annexation of Crimea. The Night Wolves tap into Western “cool,” riding around on Harley-Davidsons and hosting huge concerts with German heavy-metal music. At the same time, they worship Stalin and Putin and call openly for the resurrection of the Russian Empire. Along similar lines, Gary Rawnsley, professor of public diplomacy at Aberystwyth University, notes how Chinese propagandists, less colorful but equally liquid in their approach to ideology, “project deliberately contradictory messages.” Today’s Chinese “Communist” Party champions Confucius as well as the Cultural Revolution, and praises the stocks and shares of Shanghai alongside Maoist songs.

Clearly, simple indoctrination is no longer the goal. In a 2014 study, Haifeng Huang, an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced, looked at the political attitudes of 1,250 students at one of China’s “key national universities” (kept anonymous for the sake of security). Huang’s research showed that while students who attend propaganda courses might not believe the government is “good,” they do believe it is strong. “A sufficient amount of propaganda can serve to demonstrate a regime’s strength in maintaining social control and political order,” argues Huang. He calls this propaganda a form of “signaling” rather than “indoctrination”: The point is to intimidate, not to convince anyone of an ideological message.

Something like this is also at work in Syria. In her classic study, Ambiguities of Domination, Lisa Wedeen tried to understand why Syrians living under Hafez al-Assad’s rule in the 1990s repeated some of the regime’s palpably absurd claims, for example, that Assad was the country’s “greatest pharmacist.” Wedeen concluded that the falseness was the point: “The regime’s power resides in its ability to impose national fictions and to make people say and do what they otherwise would not. This obedience makes people complicit; it entangles them in self-enforcing relations of domination.”

According to longtime Syria-watcher (and ex-Financial Times correspondent) Abigail Fielding-Smith, Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s successor, now seeks to reimpose this model of complicity. The revolution against Bashar began in February 2011, when teenagers painted slogans about the Arab Spring on a wall in the town of Deraa. The security services’ reaction — arresting and torturing the teens — seemed extreme. But it followed from the logic of the regime, which requires citizens to demonstrate false loyalty, however absurd. Any breach in the code becomes powerfully subversive.

Today, official Syrian television continues to show unbelievably positive stories about the country’s progress, although everyone knows about the devastating civil war, whether through friends and relatives on the front or from the numerous alternative sources of media, satellite and online. But the regime is largely unbothered by this fact. In September 2011, Syrian TV tried to undermine Al Jazeera broadcasts of protests in Syrian cities by claiming that Qatar had built life-sized replicas of their main squares in order to stage fake protests there, which were then allegedly filmed by French, American, and Israeli directors. The goal, according to one Syrian journalist, is not to convince people that this bizarre story is true: “The aim is to confuse people” — to make it hard to understand what is true and what is false.“The aim is to confuse people” — to make it hard to understand what is true and what is false.

Assad isn’t alone in this. Many of the new authoritarians have realized that in the 21st century you don’t need to censor information all of the time, and you can’t do it anyway. But you can create enough disinformation to spoil the media space and prevent people from understanding what is happening. In Turkey, Erdogan has created conspiracy-mongering Twitter-bot squadrons. The Chinese have the so-called “50 Cent Party” — online scribes who are paid 50 cents for every pro-regime comment they post. The Kremlin uses “troll factories” to post pro-Kremlin messages and slander critics in Russia and abroad.

And the result? Take the Baltics, where large ethnic Russian minorities are exposed to radically different realities through local and Kremlin media. Research by the Open Estonia Foundation showed that ethnic Russians living in the country end up disbelieving both sides and struggling to form opinions. If anything, Russian Baltic audiences are more drawn toward Kremlin sources because they are more emotional and entertaining, offering them fantasies — invented tales of Russian children crucified by Ukrainian militants, for example. Respondents in focus groups among ethnic Russian audiences in Latvia said that news on Russian TV channels is “emotionally attractive, because some news you watch [like it’s] an exciting movie. You don’t trust it, but watch it gladly.”

If there is a competition between different versions of reality, in other words, the side that is less constrained by the truth may be more likely to win. But if this is the case, then the entire premise of liberal media is undermined. We have long believed that more information means better decisions and better democracy.We have long believed that more information means better decisions and better democracy. If disinformation becomes a deluge, this may no longer be the case. We are also seeing the same trend in countries such as the United States, where different sides of the political spectrum are splitting off into separate realities — producing disinformation such as stories about the Democrats’ healthcare reform including “death panels,” or that President Obama was born outside the U.S.

Today’s autocrats, “illiberal democrats,” and their propagandists have learned how to use phenomena previously associated with democracy — elections, the Internet, the press, the market — to undermine freedoms. They have learned how to disrupt the soft power of liberal democracy with a liquid treatment of ideology. And they do so by using Western technology and Western money. While the EU and the U.S. government decry the disinformation, aggression, and war-mongering on Kremlin TV channels, it is worth keeping in mind that these networks are kept afloat by revenue made from Western advertising.

In the photo, a young man uses the internet at a net cafe in Chongqing, China.

"Aggression, disinformation and war mongering on Kremlin TV ?" Funny, I see aggression on CNN when reporters go on US military flights over the South China Sea, and laugh and mock Chinese transmissions, informing them that they are unwelcome and must leave.

I see disinformation from NYT, Foreign Policy, Wash Post when it is repeated ad-nauseam that the Ukraine crisis began when Putin "invaded" Crimea.

I see war-mongering on a massive scale, when NATO builds up arms and conducts exercise on Russia's borders. Again CNN, Bloomberg, etc claim it is to "deter" Russia from invading the Baltics, etc..

The most blatant propaganda organisation is RFE/RL. Is there any wonder Russians don't trust Western media?

The writer should ask how all a very free society like America do believe in the WMD in Irak ! How did this happened ! How all the "great" journalist, writers and else where all agree. And he should ask himself how does the mainstream media in Europe are so coventional leeding you between the center left and center right excluding everything else etc etc.

Not groups like Al Jazeera, with their pro Muslim Brotherhood manipulation of Egypt's Spring, with the full endorsement of SOS Clinton. Who cares that hundreds were slaughtered.

Or that the killing of Jews in a Paris Jewish deli is labelled as "random".

Or that mass "environmental" "grass roots" protests in NYC with hundreds of giant identical props that must of cost tens of thousands of dollars, pop up out of the blue..

No, folks like Steyer, Soros, Ford Foundation, Zuckerberg, Rockerfelers/350.org etc...don't ever try to manipulante public opinion, ever..

So how would Murdoch media with Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and countless local radio stations and print papers plus Bain Capital which owns a network of over 800 radio stations hosting Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and genre count?

As the documentary 'merchants of doubt' points out, this kind of control is well established in the U.S.

Bottom line is that unless the elite class that controls the media outlets comes to its senses and accepts the need for a well informed and educated populace we are stuck in this downward spiral. Good luck with that when there is a Donald Trump as spokesperson for the new world.

FP carried story by Robert Pelton back in 2012 about how Russian disinformation experts were able to assist Assad to control information:

- Kill the Messenger - What Russia taught Syria: When you destroy a city, make sure no one -- not even the story -- gets out alive.

In late 2013, Beijing started taking a very different approach to sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea — although few outside China noticed the change. Instead of directly confronting the other regional claimant states, Beijing began the rapid consolidation of, and construction on, the maritime features already under its control. And it did so on a scale and pace befitting China’s impressive engineering prowess.

Much of the outside world only realized this approach in early 2015, after several high-profile U.S. think tanks published high-resolution satellite images showing the extraordinary progress of China’s island construction, including military facilities and runways, which could extend Beijing’s military reach over the contested waters. This worried Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, because their claims to parts of the South China Sea overlap with China’s, and because they fear Beijing’s island construction threatens their security. It worries Washington as well: In May, the U.S. government vowed to assert freedom of navigation by sending military assets to Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea. And in late May, in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for “an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants” — in other words, China.

Intriguingly, half a month later, Beijing indicated that it would soon conclude its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs even held a special press conference to deliver that message.

So what happened? Is Beijing changing its strategy in the South China Sea or backing down because of pressure from Washington? Perhaps. A more accurate way of looking at the issue, however, is to see that Beijing believes it has achieved enough in this round of island construction. China, according to Carter, has reclaimed more than 2,000 acres over the last 18 months — a claim that Beijing has not publicly disputed. And the facilities Beijing will continue to build on the new land — including airstrips, ports, and lighthouses — will be sufficient for a wide range of civil and military purposes. (Indeed, Beijing is not denying that those facilities will have “necessary military defense” functions — although it is certainly not emphasizing that aspect of its island construction.)

Beijing’s South China Sea policy actually hasn’t changed much. Reclamation will stop for now, but construction of facilities on the reclaimed land will continue, and Beijing hasn’t changed its claims to the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, this special Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement requires an explanation, for it is intended to send an important diplomatic signal. China has learned its lesson from negative regional responses to island building in the South China Sea. Not of the dangers of a military showdown with the United States in the area, which it considers a remote possibility, but on how negative regional reactions can harm its larger foreign-policy goals. Specifically, Beijing has learned how land reclamation on the current scale and pace is threatening the policy priority of building a maritime Silk Road through Southeast Asia.

Ever since President Xi Jinping articulated the goals of building a Silk Road economic belt through central Eurasia, and a maritime Silk Road through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, in late 2013, the One Belt, One Road initiative has become something like a grand strategy — integrating the domestic needs of economic restructuring with the international ambitions of expanding China’s diplomatic and economic influence. OBOR encompasses 4.4 billion people, 64 countries, and a combined economic output of $21 trillion — roughly twice the annual gross domestic product of China, or 29 percent of global GDP. This is literally China’s economic diplomacy for half of the world, under one single policy framework. If OBOR is indeed China’s grand strategy — and if it’s really one that Xi takes to heart — then nothing internationally should stand in the way of its execution.

The problem with Beijing’s current South China Sea policy is that it increasingly conflicts with OBOR, because it is damaging China’s relationships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), countries on which the success of the maritime Silk Road depends. As a result of Beijing’s 2012-2013 standoff with Manila over the contested Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, and the violent tensions provoked with Hanoi by placing an oil rig near the contested Paracel islands in May 2014, China’s relationships with the Philippines and Vietnam are at their lowest points in recent history. Now Beijing’s island construction is making these countries — and Southeast Asia as a whole — feel more threatened.

Yes, all 10 members of ASEAN have joined the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, one of the financial arms of OBOR, thus signaling their desire to partake in its economic opportunities. But the persistence of South China Sea tensions and China’s growing military clout in the region will dispose them to view OBOR in geopolitical terms, not in terms of economic cooperation, which Beijing prefers.

Beijing is realizing that excessive and ongoing tensions in the South China Sea are detrimental to its larger foreign-policy interests. Given the greater ambitions of OBOR, the South China Sea project should not be allowed to hijack or distort the overall direction of Chinese foreign policy.

Beijing is also becoming increasing aware of another pressing need for its South China Sea policy: keeping the region relatively stable so as not to give other countries a pretext for creating troubles in China’s relationship with ASEAN countries. Beijing fears an anti-China alliance formed among the United States, ASEAN, and perhaps also Japan, Australia, and India, in a united opposition to its South China Sea policy. This would doom the maritime leg of OBOR, which must pass through the South China Sea and obtain support from key ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. It would also be a huge setback to Chinese security interests in maritime Asia, making its policy options more constrained and costly.

It would be true strategic folly if unrestrained land reclamation serves no significant interests other than to drive ASEAN countries into the arms of the United States. The top priority of Beijing’s South China Sea policy now is to prevent such an anti-China alliance from forming and to support the grand strategy of OBOR in any way possible.

One should also not lose sight of how the June 16 press conference came just before the seventh U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual series of top-level bilateral meetings, being held this year on June 23-24 in Washington, D.C. The meetings are also just three months before the biggest event of Sino-U.S. relations this year — Xi’s state visit to the United States in September. The announcement to conclude land reclamation was in part timed to create a more congenial environment for developing the China-U.S. relationship in the second half of this year. Make no mistake: Despite what China scholar David Lampton has called “a tipping point in U.S.-China relations,” Beijing still wants and values a stable relationship with Washington. Chinese officials are now doing everything possible to make Xi’s visit a success.

And it’s not only the Chinese taking steps to improve the relationship. On June 18, two days after the Chinese announcement, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel tried to tone down tensions in the South China Sea by saying that the United States is determined to avoid military confrontation with China (although he also made it clear that continued construction of facilities on the reclaimed islands will remain a U.S. concern). One feels that a rapprochement between China and the United States on the South China Sea is taking place.

So, although Beijing’s South China Sea policy hasn’t changed much in substance, it has sent a conciliatory and positive signal to the outside world, in effect saying that it will halt its land reclamation in the South China Sea and defuse tensions in the region. What Beijing is not publically saying — but which it sincerely hopes the outside world will understand — is that it expects greater cooperation with OBOR. In other words, the South China Sea reclamation project has ceased to be a core interest of Chinese foreign policy, if, indeed, it ever was.

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