Where there is authoritarianism, there is disinformation. Nikolina Klatt and Vanessa Boese-Schlosser examine the use of disinformation in authoritarian governance and highlight how autocrats use it to maintain their grip on power. But they also caution that disinformation is not exclusive to autocratic governance: spreading deceitful narratives harms democracies
Limiting transparency is a hallmark of authoritarian governance, and autocrats strategically use information and manipulation in several ways to maintain and strengthen their power.
Firstly, they restrict information access. Limited internet access forces citizens to rely on government-controlled information. Autocratic governments interfere with online traffic to exert control over the flow of information. For instance, the Chinese government's Great Firewall blocks access to foreign news and social media websites. This restricts the population's access to independent sources of information and promotes state propaganda instead.
False information often goes beyond a simple true-false binary distinction, with misleading narratives and manipulated statistics
Secondly, autocrats manipulate the content that is shared through social media, and strategically spread disinformation. Such false information often goes beyond a simple true-false binary distinction. Rather, it is spread as complex adversarial narratives. These narratives are intentionally misleading, attack vulnerable individuals or even democratic and scientific institutions, and create a risk of physical harm. This is particularly dire in settings where news consumers cannot access alternative 'news' outlets and therefore cannot verify the information transmitted.
The Russian government, for example, has, since 2008, relied increasingly on spreading false information, particularly during its invasion of Crimea and the attack on Ukraine. Autocrats also manipulate official statistics to improve their reputation, particularly economic performance and public health. In North Korea, the government is known to manipulate economic data and statistics to project an image of prosperity and progress, despite widespread poverty and a struggling economy.
Finally, another disinformation strategy is to target influential individuals with false accusations to undermine their credibility and sow discord within democratic institutions. For example, in Turkey, the government arrests and imprisons journalists and opposition figures on trumped-up charges of terrorism and espionage. This stifles dissent and weakens democratic institutions.
There is also an economic side to the rising 'disinformation threat'. Disinformation has become a profitable industrial-scale business model that operates globally and locally.
Complexity is a key characteristic of this disinformation economy, because its underlying logistical infrastructure and maintenance are highly specialised services. The enormous success of its business model is the result of push-and-pull factors on the demand and supply sides of the disinformation economy.
Private military companies such as the Wagner group offer disinformation services, often in conflict settings. The multi-million-dollar company, Russian-backed and linked to the president, is a main actor in the African disinformation economy. These private companies create blockbuster dis-infotainment movies and spread false narratives on social media. Their successful movies portray Russian soldiers as heroes supporting or liberating Africans from US or Chinese influence.
The disinformation economy provides opportunities for actors who exacerbate conflicts and fuels polarisation on an industrial scale
On the supply side, weak media ecosystems, lacking alternative professional options, push local journalists into the disinformation business. Furthermore, the disinformation economy provides opportunities for actors who fuel polarisation on an industrial scale. For example, non-African states seed and amplify disinformation campaigns, thus supporting armed conflicts throughout the continent. African contractors are often involved in frontline work, while coordinated networks spread professionally produced multimedia content worldwide. Such campaigns rely on ‘infotainment’ formats to bypass media watchdogs and target unsuspecting audiences.
The demand for adversarial narratives regularly exceeds the demand for regular news. The number of clicks on websites with such narratives reflects this. These clicks, in turn, generate revenue through ads placed on websites; thus, enraging, deliberately provocative content often makes websites more profitable.
In 2016, over 140 US websites based in North Macedonia published sensationalist and often false content aimed at Trump supporters. They relied on Facebook to promote their content and generate traffic. Most posts on these websites are copied from right-wing sites and rewritten with attention-grabbing headlines. Weak regulation of ad placement by major companies like Google and Yahoo means that advertisers currently lack control over the placement of their ads, and may find their products or services advertised alongside misleading clickbait.
Though disinformation characterises day-to-day governance in autocracies, it is also cause for concern in democracies. Over a third of the global population has experienced substantial reductions in civil liberties and political rights since 1994. 2021 saw the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen decrease to 1989 levels, with 70% of the world population living in autocracies.
This rise of authoritarianism is accompanied by polarisation and the use of disinformation by autocratic governments to shape domestic and international opinion. Disinformation can become a problem for democracies when a wide and free media environment lacks oversight and fact-checking, enabling the uncontrolled spread of false information.
Promoting democratic resilience in the face of autocratisation and disinformation requires a broad set of strategies. First, access to a range of information and a healthy media ecosystem is crucial for democracies. Therefore, strengthening local media infrastructure – a vital network of local news organisations and journalists that inform citizens and strengthen civic dialogue – is a key strategy for democratic resilience. Free media guarantees accountability and transparency by exposing abuses of power and informing the public about significant political matters.
Access to a range of information and a healthy media ecosystem is crucial for democracies, but it is also important to tackle the supply side of the disinformation economy
Second, media and journalism education and literacy are crucial for citizens to discern information from disinformation. A free media ecosystem enables local journalists to spread content in democratic ways. Investing in strong local media infrastructure and informed communities builds resilience.
Third, transnational cooperation is necessary to enact appropriate legislation. Notably, we need regulation requiring tech companies to develop ad placement control systems. Such systems could prevent ad placement on websites with inflammatory content. Advertisers could choose where their ads appear based on content. This, in turn, would discourage the use of provocative content as a profitable strategy for generating ad revenue.
Finally, another recommendation that may help dismantle the disinformation economy is to drive up supply-side costs. This would involve exposing the puppet masters behind disinformation campaigns, blacklisting campaign profiteers, and offering alternative opportunities to content creators active in the disinformation economy.