The New Authoritarians: Ruling Through Disinformation
Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow to the Transitions Forum, moderated a discussion on how neo-authoritarian and “hybrid” regimes have become more sophisticated in their use of propaganda, as he launched the Beyond Propaganda series with the publication of its first report, The New Authoritarians: Ruling through Disinformation
Abigail Fielding-Smith, reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Democracy Lab blogger Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, two authors of the report, were joined by Yevhen Hlibovytsky, CEO of the think tank Pro-Mova, to discuss how leaders take advantage of the 21st century information age for their own ends, and how this can hinder democratic transitions.
“The information age is mutating into the disinformation age,” Pomerantsev claimed. The technological advances of the 21st century were meant to bring “better decisions, and better democracy, but if disinformation becomes a deluge, this may no longer be the case”. The panel compared the methods of leaders in Syria, Venezuela, China, Turkey and Russia. “Disinformation has replaced any appeal to ideology and is more effective at suppressing dissent” said Fielding-Smith, looking at Syria and other MENA region states. “[The pro-regime media’s] surreal and hyperbolic discourse diminishes citizen’s public agency,” and discredits credible reporting.
21st century authoritarians “exhibit all the attributes of ‘Western cool’,” explained Pomerantsev, and their populations can enjoy a Western lifestyle whilst still hating the West itself. “There are ‘smart’ dictators and ‘silly’ dictators”, according to Lansberg-Rodríguez. Chávez’s reality TV-style shows and bizarre conspiracy theories meant that Venezuelans, whose country was once a model for democracy on the continent, “didn’t know that Chávez had actually been smart until we got Maduro”.
Instead of relying on the deification of a leader, China monitors the internet religiously with its “50 Cent Party”, who are paid for every pro-regime comment they post on social media. Whilst the population might not believe the Party is “good”, they get the impression that it is “strong”. Russia is at the forefront of the information war. Kremlin mouthpieces such as Russia Today (RT), pollute both the domestic and international media space, “we know the Russians are lying but their production is so sexy that we watch it”, explained Pomerantsev.
“To fight propaganda you must understand culture, ethnicity and religion,” explained Hlibovytsky. His strategy prior to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in 2004 challenged two assumptions of propagandists; “citizens are passive consumers” and “quantity rather than quality is more important”. Fielding-Smith stressed that “the Middle East is a cacophony of different narratives, the last thing that’s needed is for the West to add another”.
The Beyond Propaganda programme will continue to gather experts from media, government, defence, academia and institutions promoting democracy, throughout the year: they will assess how best to understand information warfare and ways to combat it.
Abbie Fielding-Smith has been trying to understand Syria since visiting Damascus in 2005 as its occupation of Lebanon was drawing to an end. She was based in Beirut between 2008 and 2014, and covered the Syrian uprising for the Financial Times, sifting through government and opposition media every day as it evolved in to a civil war. She has reported from Damascus, the pro-opposition suburbs, and the regime’s coastal heartlands.
Yevhen Hlibovytsky is a Ukranian journalist and policy expert, and played an important role in both the Orange and Maidan revolutions. He was one of the founders of Channel 5, which helped counter government censorship during the Orange revolution in 2004. He is a co-founder of Hromadske.tv, one of the key voices during the Maidan. Yevhen now runs Pro-Mova, a think tank and a consultancy focused on transformation issues in the former USSR. He is particularly interested in understanding how cultural factors affect the ability of societies to form democratic institutions.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches at Northwestern University in Chicago, and is Latin America Director at Greenmantle, a geopolitical and macroeconomic consulting firm. A regular blogger on Venezuela for Democracy Lab, his analyses and journalism have likewise appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times and the Financial Times, among others. In 2014, after two years as a weekly columnist for El Universal, Daniel was one of several dozen writers to have their columns discontinued due to increased government pressure upon critical editorial lines, his column has since continued to be published by El Nacional, Venezuela’s last independent national newspaper.
Peter Pomerantsev is a Senior Fellow to the Transitions Forum. He is also an author and documentary producer. His writing features regularly in the London Review of Books, The Atlantic, Financial Times, Foreign Policy and elsewhere, focusing largely, though not exclusively, on 21st century propaganda. Previously, Pomerantsev worked as a consultant on EU and World Bank development projects in the former USSR. His book about working as a TV producer in Putin’s Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, was published by Faber in 2015.
About the Series
The Legatum Institute’s Beyond Propaganda series will help media, experts and the general public to be better equipped against media manipulation across the world, and will inform the work of policy-makers looking for innovative ways to win the ‘information war’.
The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.
The New Authoritarians: Ruling Through Disinformation