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The Autocrat Sliding into Your DMs

The Autocrat Sliding into Your DMs

From deepfakes to digital trolling, authoritarian state media is devising new ways to manipulate you.

Ariane Gottlieb

In Russia, just weeks after the Kremlin launched its assault on Ukraine in February 2022, news editor Marina Ovsyannikova charged into a state news broadcast waving a sign that read “don’t believe the propaganda . . . they are lying to you.” For her rebellion, Ovsyannikova endured fourteen hours of interrogation, paid a fine, and eventually fled the country. Nevertheless, this brief act of defiance was extraordinary given the Russian authorities’ iron grip over the media ecosystem.

Ovsyannikova’s case drew much-needed attention to autocrats’ weaponization of state media to pollute information spaces at home and abroad. While these outlets often mimic those in democratic settings, they are governed by fundamentally different values. Although state media might seem obsolete in the digital age, authoritarian powers have adapted these outlets to compete in the modern information environment.

Authoritarian-controlled media work on multiple fronts. They use digital and social media platforms to amplify their messaging. Online trolls serve as a force multiplier for state media’s defamation and intimidation of independent voices. In an increasingly globalized information space, authoritarian media also cooperate across state lines to reinforce strategic narratives.

The primary objective of state media is to support the ruling party, distinguishing it from independent public-service media. Illiberal actors employ a variety of tactics to influence messaging, from directly overseeing outlets to stifling independent reporting through coercion. Among state-administered media entities, three key factors help determine outlets’ independence: the governance and ownership structure, the predominant source of funding, and editorial autonomy. State actors can also influence messaging by restricting funding or airtime for independent outlets.

In 2016, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping made clear that party loyalty lies at the crux of China’s state media strategy. In his words, “The media run by the party and the government are [China’s] propaganda fronts” and “all the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity.” The CCP determines editorial guidelines for major newspapers and broadcasters, placing them under the authority of the Propaganda Department, among other state institutions. As of July 2023, journalists in China will be required to pass an exam demonstrating their party loyalty.

Authoritarian media serve as regime mouthpieces, elevating stories that legitimize government policies. Following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, state media fell in line to project the Kremlin’s talking points. Outlets refrained from displaying the violent reality on the ground and repeated President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the assault aimed to eradicate Nazi influence.

In the background, Marina Ovsyannikova holds up the protest sign on a Russian state news broadcast. 

The rise of digital information has offered opportunities for activists to share their perspectives more widely, but at the same time has increased the reach of state media. As of 2018, Beijing had propelled four state-linked outlets to become the most followed news pages on Facebook; the majority of Facebook users who follow China’s news platforms live outside China. CCP-linked media have turned to Twitter, Instagram, and even TikTok to spread propaganda. Moscow and Beijing have also expanded their foreign-language content. By 2022, the latter’s international audience reached tens of millions of global followers.

Autocrats sometimes obscure the origin of state media messaging to circumvent bans and lend their propaganda an aura of legitimacy. As Iranians increasingly seek out digital alternatives to traditional state outlets, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has camouflaged its online presence through fraudulent social media accounts and websites that compile regime-friendly stories. Deepfakes promoting party viewpoints have emerged out of China and Venezuela; one Venezuelan outlet claimed that its fake videos originated from external—and therefore supposedly unbiased—sources, thereby attempting to substantiate domestic media narratives.

State media serve a crucial attack function: targeting government opponents, silencing alternative voices, and biasing audiences against government criticism. In Egypt, pro-regime media defame independent journalists at the behest of security services, while state-directed “electronic brigades” amplify these claims on social media. In just one example, state television channels launched a smear campaign against activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, criticizing her for not wearing a hijab and displaying photos of her in a swimsuit, taken without her consent. In the aftermath, multiple media outlets have refused to work with Fattah and she has lost contact with relatives.

State media also provide fodder for and amplify state-sponsored digital trolling operations. In Turkey, one commentator took to social media to attack a journalist who had been sentenced to two years in prison for authoring an op-ed about the Charlie Hebdo attack in France that included an image of the Prophet Muhammad. This triggered a state-sponsored trolling campaign in which the most influential user fueling the barrage was a pro-regime commentator with over four hundred thousand followers.

Concerted attacks by online trolls and bots serve to induce self-censorship and delegitimize movements. Iranian activist Samaneh Savadi noted the demoralizing effect of a trolling campaign targeting Instagram accounts linked to the country’s #MeToo movement (although the origins of this attack were uncertain, experts noted parallels to tactics deployed by Tehran and its proxies): “It’s that feeling of an invisible enemy,” she explained. “Someone wants to attack me, but I can’t see it; I can’t name and shame it, and therefore, I can’t have a strategy to defend myself.”

Arguably the most disturbing attack function is when state media aid and abet forced confessions. Opponents of autocratic regimes have been subjected to torture, mock executions, and more, with the intent of coercing the victim into delivering recorded confessions. These videos are then featured in state media outlets with the aims of inducing self-censorship, legitimizing government narratives, and spreading terror. Beijing, for instance, broadcasted 87 confessions from 2013 to 2020.

Digital tools increase the reach and impact of coerced confessions. In 2021, Belarusian authorities brutallyextracted a series of confessions from journalist Roman Protasevich and shared them on state and social media. One pro-government YouTube channel purchased advertisements that featured Protasevich’s confession, among others, and directed viewers to a regime-friendly Telegram channel. Although YouTube removed the video featuring Protasevich, similar videos have since appeared.

Authoritarian regimes increasingly cooperate to amplify mutually beneficial messaging. Moscow- and Beijing-linked outlets have gradually aligned on issues of strategic interest and have agreed to formal collaborations, such as content-sharing agreements. Following the Ukraine invasion, for example, Chinese state media refrained from negatively portraying Russia’s conduct. The rapid, networked modern media environment exacerbates the harm and impact of such collaboration, as propaganda and disinformation now spread faster and further than ever before.

Since dictators work tirelessly and in tandem to maintain their media advantage in the modern world, democracies must double down on their commitment to protect and invest in independent media. Democracy advocates should aim to reach citizens in closed societies and support underfunded outlets. They must equip media entities and independent tech companies with the expertise and tools to resist efforts to coopt their platforms. Most critically, the world’s democracies must support and protect independent journalists in repressive settings.

Marina Ovsyannikova risked everything to challenge the Kremlin’s media stranglehold­–and for it, she suffered an enormous price. Yet her cry was heard far and wide. Democracies must build on her brave act to safeguard media freedom around the world.

Ariane Gottlieb is an assistant program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies

Image: A mural of Vladimir Putin, Favara, Italy. (Unsplash: Don Fontijn)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeRussiaTechnologyUnited StatesUkraine