Authoritarian Broadcaster’s Influence

Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction without use of force, coercion or a monetary incentive

Joseph Nye

Soft power is important, it provides an alternative to aggression and heightened international tension. This western theory is one that authoritarian states would do well to consider, it can serve to build understanding, respect and acceptance of diverse societies. Something that states like Russia and China desperately need as the west increasingly sees their actions as aggressive. If authoritarian states are to make their mark on the world order, they need to be able to act within it first.

Authoritarian states want to protect themselves from the perceived threat that comes with the spread of western influence. Russia, as an example, sees the advocacy of international human rights to be an attack on the nation’s ideals — a way of punishing outsiders. China also wants to shield itself whilst building up its own potential as an alternative to the western model. This focus on preventing outside influence is what William Callahan calls ‘negative soft power’. This is almost like an internal propaganda campaign to debunk foreign influence rather than the western soft power of international spread.

Here you can see where broadcasters come in. In authoritarian states the broadcasting services are largely, if not wholly, controlled by the state. This provides the opportunity for control of the message going out to the population. They use a narrative that creates an ‘us and them’ perspective that positions the public of the authoritarian states as the rivals of other strong soft power producers. Broadcasters also make a point of reporting of social and moral inequalities in the USA and west. Without this, there would be heightened calls by the public for changes that would align these states more with the west.

RT (Russia Today) and CGTN (formally CCTV of China) are undergoing global expansion. These channels can provide news in other countries that the public may not have been able to see otherwise. RT often reports on occurrences in the USA that western media would have ignored. This means that, as long as they maintain credibility, RT and CGTN could become very influential quite easily. By adopting norms of the current system — 24/7 news cycles, seemingly impartial content, and often hiring reputable reporters in different countries — these broadcasters can maintain and increase credibility. Staying credible mitigates the damage of linkages to an authoritarian government, but this is still a problem.

To become a popular broadcaster in the west you have to be able to emulate the norms of their media and to some extent social norms as well. This hinders a authoritarian broadcaster’s ability to spread a state’s message. It is very difficult to change prevailing norms and to attempt to do so could cause resentment, especially in western states. This means that a balance between adhering to western norms and promoting your own has to be found. Otherwise you risk either having created another western news organisation or lack of interest in the west. An alternative is to focus on regions like Africa to spread influence instead. Although your soft power will be less useful here, it would be much easier to become influential.

Authoritarian broadcasters have the role of propaganda machine both domestically and internationally. Domestically they serve to reduce the impact of western soft power by debunking and pointing out the misgivings in their systems. The international duties are more nuanced as outright propaganda would be ignored and condemned. These broadcasters can produce soft power by positioning themselves are credible news sources that report on things that many other sources don’t. But this can be difficult to do if the channel is labelled as propaganda or seen to be strongly tied to their authoritarian state’s government.