On 22 June 2015, London-based think tank Legatum Institute held a panel discussion to mark the launch of ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series and the publication of the opening collection of essays titled ‘The New Authoritarians: Ruling Through Disinformation’. The initiative is aimed at supporting media, experts and the general public in dealing with challenges of media manipulation across the world.
The panel discussion was focused on the ways in which contemporary neo-authoritarian and ‘hybrid’ regimes such as China, Russia, Turkey or Venezuela have become more sophisticated in their use of propaganda. The panel was chaired by Peter Pomerantsev, Senior Fellow to Legatum’s Transitions Forum, author and documentary producer whose key interests lie in the former USSR region and issues of 21st century propaganda. The speakers were Abigail Fielding-Smith, reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who covered the Syrian uprising for the Financial Times; Yevhen Hlibovytsky, Ukranian journalist and policy expert who runs think tank and consultancy Pro-Mova, one of the founders of Ukraine’s Channel 5, and co-founder of Hromadske.tv; and Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, analyst and journalist specialising on Venezuela and Democracy Lab blogger. The discussion focused on the quandaries and innovative strategies of media manipulation in Venezuela, Syria and Ukraine, and also, predictably, addressed the exemplary case of Russian propaganda. This review concentrates mostly on the parts of the discussion related to Ukraine and Russia.
Anne Applebaum, Director of Legatum’s Transitions Forum, politics and foreign policy journalist and author, opened the discussion by stressing that in the current times, the ways in which people get information are as important as the information or particular policies themselves. Therefore, it is important to understand how information becomes disinformation, can be used by authoritarian regimes, and employed in the information war.
Pomerantsev then briefly introduced the rationale of the project launch. Information age, he asserted, has been mutating into disinformation age, and the challenges of such mutation are ours to deal with. He identified three main cross-cutting themes pertaining to these challenges. Firstly, the ‘new authoritarians’ have learnt to use the instruments of democracy against democracy. The examples include the use of elections as an authoritarian tool, creative use of media censorship allowing some freedom of speech but preventing any collective organisation, and employing crony capitalism in authoritarian media management and suppression of democratic initiatives. The second characteristic is a liquid approach to ideology, when propagandists convey contradictory messages including features of the Western lifestyle but not its political freedoms. Thirdly, disinformation can be used against ideology, when the point of the propaganda becomes not to censor or impose a clear ideological message, but rather to flood the media space with disinformation in order to complicate people’s understanding of the reality and stop social movements from developing.
Lansberg-Rodriguez focused in his talk on Venezuela, describing Chávez’s regime using a metaphor of a ‘reality-show authoritarianism’. He concentrated on the late president’s extensive state media empire, and in particular on his television talk-show Aló Presidente. Fielding-Smith spoke about Syria and the role of overly positive messages produced by Assad regime’s state media amidst the war.
Hlibovytsky talked about his own experiences of developing media strategies alternative to the state media before, during and after the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Channel 5 helped counter government censorship in 2004. Hromadske became one of the key voices and the most trusted media outlets since the beginning of Euromaidan: the public service broadcast went to 2 million viewers in less than just 2 weeks of its existence. The speaker stressed that while the periods before both revolutions were characterised by lack of media freedom, things became more complicated before the last upheaval. Prior to the Maidan, the journalists have developed a significant degree of cynicism. While before 2004 censorship was breaking people, 10 years later it was simply buying them.
The expert outlined two of the main assumptions of any censorship. Firstly, censorships are based on the idea that the citizens are not actors and lack political agency. Secondly, ‘quantity matters more than quality’: the scale of the impact is more important than affecting particular groups of the population. Hlibovytsky and his colleagues took the opposite ideas as their guiding principles both during the Orange Revolution and the Maidan. He stated that it is important to have ‘qualitative’ following, acknowledge the diversity of the audience and be able to target particular groups. Besides, the expert stressed the importance of culture and the need to understand the specific needs of the audiences. Finally, the planning horizon has to be great. Hlibovytsky suggested that one has to rely on long-term approach in developing the strategies of dealing with the state censorship and propaganda, and come to solutions that go beyond 2-3 presidential terms.
The questions from the audience ensued, and despite the regional focus of the panel discussion, most of the them were related to the Russian propaganda and the possible ways of dealing with it in the West. The panellists admitted that the West can never catch up with Russia in terms of producing catchy propagandist images and discourses. However, they underlined that the Russian state media, while being notorious for the skill of making PR fancy media products, have never been as good at creating socially engaged documentaries as the West; this can be the strength of the Western media. The speakers also agreed that the Western media should uphold the values of fairness, accuracy and transparency, and shouldn’t resort to sensationalist images or try to get involved into misinformation game. In a similar vein, instead of engaging with the propaganda discourse and making it part of its own stories, the Western media should rather ignore it. As well, Pomerantsev noted that one should be wary about the Western technologies and Western money that may be used in the disruptive and anti-democratic strategies of Russian state media.
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