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In a Deluge of New Media, Autocrats Swim and Democracies Sink

Courtesy of id-iom/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article was originally published by World Affairs on 1 Mai 2017.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

At the beginning of the century, the spread of the internet, satellite television, and other media technologies was expected to break down old monopolies and political boundaries, making it nearly impossible for those in power to control what people read, watch, and hear.

Digital media have indeed expanded around the world at lightning speed in the years since, reaching populations that previously received news only from state broadcasters.

Nevertheless, press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016, according to Freedom House’s latest annual report. Just 13 percent of the world’s population lives in countries whose media environments are ranked as fully “free.”

What the optimists failed to take into account was that forces interested in maintaining control over news and political discourse would not simply accept the inevitability of their own demise, but would fight back and look for new opportunities to increase their dominance.

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The Putinverstehers’ Misconceived Charge of Russophobia: How Western Apology for the Kremlin’s Current Behavior Contradicts Russian National Interests

Wall paint with Putin the peace maker, courtesy duncan c/flickr

This article was originally published by the Harvard International Review on 21 January 2016.

A frequent rebuttal by apologists of Putin’s policies, in debates on Western approaches to Eastern Europe, is the allegation of Russophobia. Interpreters of contemporary Russian affairs, who present themselves as Putinversteher (German for “those who understand Putin”), accuse critics of Moscow’s recent foreign and domestic policies of a lack of empathy for, or even of xenophobia towards, the Russian nation, as well as its traditions, worries, and views. Such allegations are usually accompanied by a reference to Vladimir Putin’s impressive performance in Russian public opinion polls. These interpretations are often embedded in historical-philosophical deliberations about the role of Russia in Europe and the world – for example, about the history of, and lessons from, Russian-Western collaboration in the past. » More

Russia’s Info-War: the Home Front

Grafitti of Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Image: Esther Dyson/Flickr

This article was originally published as Issue Alert No. 18 by the European Union Institute for Security Studies

The use and misuse of information is as important to today’s Kremlin as it was to the Soviet Politburo. But if the ultimate goal is the same – to control the people from above – the techniques used to achieve it are strikingly different. Whereas
Soviet leaders imposed strict censorship in an attempt to isolate the people from the ‘heresies’ of the West, Putin’s government bombards them with fantastical stories designed to paralyse their critical faculties. And if Soviet propaganda was
meant to contribute to the construction of a new society, modern Russian propaganda is wholly destructive. Rather than try, in vain, to persuade the people of the virtues of its rule, today’s Kremlin disseminates lies and half-truths designed less to convince than to disorientate. In so doing, the regime cuts away the ground from beneath the people’s feet, propelling them into a world where, in Peter Pomerantsev’s words, ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’.

On the home front of the information war, President Putin has scored a decisive victory. He has succeeded in persuading his people that the Kiev authorities are fascists and the Americans aggressors, while he himself is all that stands between
Russia and total chaos. » More

The Media Cold War

This blog is republished here as part of our special holiday selection.

Internet cafe in Taipei

Internet cafe in Taipei. Photo: jared/flickr.

PRINCETON – An information war has erupted around the world. The battle lines are drawn between those governments that regard the free flow of information, and the ability to access it, as a matter of fundamental human rights, and those that regard official control of information as a fundamental sovereign prerogative. The contest is being waged institutionally in organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and daily in countries like Syria.

The sociologist Philip N. Howard recently used the term “new cold war” to describe “battles between broadcast media outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership, and censorship.” Because broadcasting requires significant funding, it is more centralized – and thus much more susceptible to state control. Social media, by contrast, transforms anyone with a mobile phone into a potential roving monitor of government deeds or misdeeds, and are hard to shut down without shutting down the entire Internet. Surveying struggles between broadcast and social media in Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, Howard concludes that, notwithstanding their different media cultures, all three governments strongly back state-controlled broadcasting.

These intra-media struggles are interesting and important. The way that information circulates does reflect, as Howard argues, a conception of how a society/polity should be organized. » More

The Media Cold War

Internet cafe in Taipei

Internet cafe in Taipei. Photo: jared/flickr.

PRINCETON – An information war has erupted around the world. The battle lines are drawn between those governments that regard the free flow of information, and the ability to access it, as a matter of fundamental human rights, and those that regard official control of information as a fundamental sovereign prerogative. The contest is being waged institutionally in organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and daily in countries like Syria.

The sociologist Philip N. Howard recently used the term “new cold war” to describe “battles between broadcast media outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership, and censorship.” Because broadcasting requires significant funding, it is more centralized – and thus much more susceptible to state control. Social media, by contrast, transforms anyone with a mobile phone into a potential roving monitor of government deeds or misdeeds, and are hard to shut down without shutting down the entire Internet. Surveying struggles between broadcast and social media in Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, Howard concludes that, notwithstanding their different media cultures, all three governments strongly back state-controlled broadcasting.

These intra-media struggles are interesting and important. The way that information circulates does reflect, as Howard argues, a conception of how a society/polity should be organized. » More

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