As Vladimir Putin’s chief propagandist, Kiselyov bears considerable responsibility for ushering in what some call the post-truth era, in which lies, fabrications and fake news increasingly shape the political debate in dictatorships and democracies alike. And until recently, Lu was the field marshal of China’s ambitious system of Internet censorship. As the boss of a vast thought-control bureaucracy, he is credited with perfecting an Orwellian structure of information regulation of unprecedented scope and complexity.
A free press and access to information are the crown jewels of modern democracy. Honest elections, fair trials, equality before the law — all are vulnerable without dedicated and ethical journalists and laws that protect the press from dangerous laws proposed by people of bad faith.
Censorship and propaganda were once regarded as sources of shame, even in authoritarian settings, and the officials who carried out these shabby projects were shadowy figures unknown to the outside world. In the 21st century, however, things have changed.
Kiselyov, for example, appears regularly on Russian television and takes pride in his role as propagandist. He describes journalism as a form of warfare, argues that “Western” concepts of journalistic neutrality are fraudulent, and contends there is no difference between his role and that of a chief editor of the Associated Press. Lu boasted openly of his ignoble achievements at forums and has made visits to American tech companies, where he was treated as a celebrity for his unapologetic attitude toward his position as chief online censor.
The prominence of censors and regime flacks is testimony to the high priority modern authoritarians give to information control. Dictators regard control of information as more critical than control of the political opposition, since the former will considerably simplify the latter. Freedom House research has found that freedom of expression has been the special target of dictatorships from Eurasian kleptocrats to Venezuelan Chavistas to the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Modern dictators are more sophisticated and subtle at censorship than their totalitarian predecessors. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” The goal of today’s propaganda is to insinuate that people have a right to their own opinions and their own facts.
Trends can be exaggerated, but the decline of free speech and press freedom is infecting the democratic world as well. In recent years, we have seen some worrying developments, starting with the globalization of the Russian model of weaponized information.
In many newer democracies, media conditions are defined by polarization and raw polemics, with each faction advancing a scorched-earth message while the space for neutral voices steadily dwindles. In established democracies, an Internet-centered media is emerging to challenge the traditional model based on political neutrality and separation of news from opinion. Phrases once applied exclusively to autocracies — such as “post-truth” or “alternative reality” — are now being invoked to characterize conditions across the globe, including in America.
Ironically, elements of democratic culture have contributed to the rise in modern propaganda. Propositions that there is no such thing as objective truth and that history is nothing more than a contest between competing narratives owe their popularity to radical theorists and even some journalists. While accusations that the press is biased are common fodder in American political campaigns, the exaggerated and repeated charges of media bias expressed during the presidential campaign reinforced the propagandist’s depiction of a world in which truth is determined by which side argues the loudest and formulates the cleverest lies.
Others have cynically made use of the too-trusting model of Western journalism, which, in an effort to see both sides, has treated patently false assertions as symmetrical with legitimate views or facts.
The struggle over the future of global democracy is still in its early stage. Right now, unfortunately, it is democracy’s adversaries who are advancing the tawdry case for propaganda and censorship with self-assurance, and freedom’s champions whose response is mired in bewilderment and hesitation.