By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In the previous generation technology hampered the ability of totalitarian regimes to penetrate western democracies successfully. This was because western democracies were technological powerhouses innovating and their vibrant media were filling the information playing field with players. The totalitarian regimes by contrast were more antiquated and spent most of their time trying to control their own media space, constantly on the defensive they didn’t want western media getting in, but they were not that good at delivering their message abroad.
They were able to use international forums and spaces like the United Nations effectively, but when it came to media they were at a disadvantage. Also they were slow to learn new media, seeking to first master and dominate each new medium, initially print and then radio and television.
This all changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly for a brief period western media enjoyed hegemony. The totalitarian regimes were extremely weak and totally penetrated. As the internet took off in the 1990s it looked like the information age would lead to revolutions. It did. But not as intended.
Extremist organizations pioneered use of new media and gained followers. Totalitarian regimes, after twenty years o the defensive, gained control of the internet at home. In the West major legacy media were declining. Totalitarian regimes realized that misinformation is sponged by willing western audiences who think it is “alternative” or “independent”…and they created their own media platforms solely broadcasting in English to foreign audiences. Like mushrooms these new media exploded among the totalitarian regimes, until they were actually competing for space in the West and being referenced as legitimate voices. The success of Al-Jazeera is an example. Why would anyone in a democracy trust a media outlet that never reports critically at home, and *only* does it abroad? Al-Jazeera was seen as a “critical” voice, even though it represents the view of a far-right monarchy.
This is the new model. Every regime has its caged media at home and abroad is “critical” of western countries, whose own natural tendency is to be self-critical. So what we have now is a media playing field increasingly dominated by dictatorships and liberal democracy is on the defensive as its media has to compete on a crowded field.
Over time, the ability of the totalitarian regimes to dominate new media and outspend old legacy media will destroy what is left of democratic regimes. It may take 100 years. But the trajectory is clear. To meet the challenge social media giants, which are now the largest media companies in the world, have merely sought to censor content, but half the time they spend doing this on behalf of the totalitarians, and half at home to tamp down extremism. In that sense they will become willing collaborators too.