Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Authoritarian regimes create a facade of democracy to maintain a veneer of legitimacy. By constructing fake political parties and phony social movements, as well as pseudo news media and GONGOs (government-operated nongovernmental organizations), autocrats simulate democratic institutions to prevent authentic democracy from ever taking root.
Over time, these regimes have taken their imitation to a new level. With the principal goal of keeping their grip on power, modern authoritarians have built a sophisticated alternate universe of institutions: faux news outlets with state-of-the-art production values, professional-looking think tanks that churn out ideas just as their democratic counterparts do and even pretend election monitors that ape the activities of authentic monitors.
This modernized mimicry is a feature of the recent authoritarian resurgence that has created complex obstacles for democrats in autocratic settings around the globe.
Not content to remain at home, however, repressive regimes have projected imitation initiatives into other countries, as well as regional and supranational rules-based organizations.
Authoritarian-backed GONGOs, for instance, routinely insinuate themselves into the proceedings of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review and the Human Dimension Implementation Meetings of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Chinese government-aligned “nongovernmental” organizations take part in U.N. meetings to push the line of Chinese authorities. In October 2013, several Chinese GONGOs descended on Geneva to slavishly tout China’s achievements in the sphere of civil society as the Human Rights Council reviewed China’s rights record. In fact, China has one of the world’s most repressive environments for independent civil society. At last year’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Kremlin-backed GONGOs stayed true to form and sought to muddy the waters about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Cuban and Venezuelan governments brought GONGOs to the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama with the aim of presenting regime-backed groups as their authentic civil society.
In a similarly malevolent spirit, regimes have created fake groups that applaud fraudulent elections with the aim of clouding the assessments done by established monitoring organizations. These so-called zombie monitors have proliferated widely.
Two authoritarian-led initiatives, the Commonwealth of the Independent States Election Monitoring Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, have sent so-called monitors to recent polls across Eurasia.
The repressive government in Azerbaijan brought zombie monitors from abroad to sanctify a patently manipulated presidential election in October 2013. A similar spectacle occurred in Crimea for a managed referendum that was held in March 2014 after Russia’s “little green men” invaded the peninsula. Even China, a country itself without real elections, has sent observers to recent elections in Burma and Zimbabwe.
The ideas and messages of faux NGOs and election monitors are widely disseminated through authoritarian-backed media, propelling their alternate reality abroad. The best-known enterprise of this sort is Russia’s RT (formerly Russia Today). During last year’s referendum in Crimea, a hodgepodge of radical political figures, uncredentialed for authentic election monitoring, appeared on Russian government media outlets to present findings that went lock step with those of the Kremlin. In this brave new world, faux monitors speaking about a fake referendum are broadcast to the world from a simulated news outlet.
Not long ago, many observers were dismissive of RT’s influence. Today, however, thoughtful analysts are not as cavalier. While it is admittedly difficult to offer a precise metric of influence, RT and other Russian government media have become intertwined with the world of normal news, especially online. Key narratives pushed by such Russian media are picked up and propagated by Western news outlets. Popular aggregators of information on Russia, such as Johnson’s Russia List, seamlessly include RT and other Kremlin-backed media alongside sources such as the Associated Press and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Slick Web sites with phony, misleading news reports appear increasingly in the new democracies of Central Europe to offer a Kremlin spin on events. As China, Iran and other ambitious, undemocratic regimes scale up their global media activities, the challenge of distinguishing between authentic and phony information will become only more complicated.
Why are the authoritarians going global with their simulation of democracy?
First, in today’s helter-skelter, fragmented world of media, these regimes appreciate that it is much easier to cloud the understanding of important issues. Masters of deception at home, they are investing heavily abroad and exploiting the opportunities offered by the new media environment to sow confusion and distrust.
More ominously, they seek to undermine democracy and human rights institutions from within. As the authoritarian alternate universe crashes into the democratic space, the imitation affects the real thing. At the Cold War’s end, this unpleasant reality did not factor into assumptions about how the world would operate. Democracies must rethink these assumptions quickly, however, if the post-Cold War order is to be salvaged.
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