Many states have long relied on various forms of information control, such as surveillance and censorship, as part of their approach to governance. With the development of advanced digital technologies, states have new tools to monitor citizens, restrict communication, and manipulate information. While observers have expressed concerns that information control violates human rights and suppresses citizen influence in governance, the Covid-19 virus highlights another area where government information suppression can have pernicious consequences: public health.
The role of propaganda and censorship is not as obvious as it may seem. From the infamous propaganda arm of North Korean government to the state-run media organizations in China and Russia, it is clear that the mechanisms and effectiveness of propaganda and censorship vary widely. During the height of propaganda in the twentieth century, authoritarian governments were able to craft strong, singular national narratives by propagating political messages in popular media while censoring those that conflicted with the government’s line of thought. With the advent of the digital age, Russia and China have been forced to develop their propaganda strategy to combat the newfound power of the average internet user, who can seek and share information at the instant click of a mouse. While the basics of propagandistic strategy have persisted, fundamental changes have occurred as a response to the paradigm shift in information sharing and seeking.
9/11 and media
What Al-Qaeda achieved on 9/11 was arguably not only the most extreme and effective terrorist attack ever carried out, but also a highly effective media spectacle with unprecedented return on investment. The loss of human life aside, Al-Qaeda was known all over the world within hours, at the cost of eleven airline tickets and some box-cutters. Indeed, Al-Qaeda, like other terrorist organizations, could count on the readiness of the world media to broadcast their acts to the world live on television and the internet, as well as in print.
Last week, an article in Arab Crunch stated that internet users from Syria, Sudan, N Korea, Iran and Cuba were not allowed to access some services and sites. The US-based open source repository SourceForge is an example.
It must be said though that these countries are also known for their own site-blocking capabilities.
As always on the World Wide Web, nothing is certain. But the evidences point out that it is the US government that is prohibiting access to these websites. These five countries are subject to US sanctions, and as such, Washington is restraining internet access to users in these ‘blacklisted’ countries. It is also worth saying that 4 out of 5 of these countries are the one “sponsoring terrorism” (North Korea having been removed in 2008 following bilateral negotiation on non-proliferation).
But US companies and the citizens of the countries mentioned are not the only ones affected by the sanctions.
When in Milan last week, my eyes were seduced by big posters showing picturesque coastlines and romantic sceneries with ruins of antique temples in the foreground. Pure beauty, a pleasure for the eyes and the traveller in me craving. „Tunisia“ it said on the posters, „la vacanza piu’ vicina ai tuoi sogni“ – the holidays closest to your dreams.
My emotions still captured by the beautiful images, I started to realize that these were the work of the Tunisian tourist industry, which was running a big scale advertisement campaign in the Metropolitana, the Milanese underground. But not only there: On a piazza close to Milan’s famous Duomo Tunisia Turismo had built a tent where it presented the destination with music, food and folklore.
Whereas the latter seemed corny and did not appeal to me the posters did. But there was one problem. The beautiful images clashed in my head with the notion of Tunisia being a country where civil liberties have been restricted and where government censorship and self-censorship has infected the society. Over the last decade or so, Tunisia has become an autocratic regime under the rule of the president with the poetic name Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Nevertheless, in times when the Italian people seem to be hit hard by the economic crisis, the advertisers have a very good argument: “Tunisia, un Paese vicino, dall’atmosfera esotica”. Even though Tunisia is very close to Italy (read inexpensive to visit), it is an exotic place.