The global rise of personalist ‘strongman’ regimes has transformed the way autocracies use digital media to spread ideologies and influence public sentiment. Camille Laurente explores how personalist rulers in Russia, North Korea and the Philippines exploit new media strategies to impact socio-political behavior.

 

The evolution of digital media is a fascinating backdrop for examining political institutions. New media technologies have become tools for molding societal structures, evidently shaping interactions between individuals and governments. Through the metric of press freedom and expression, research on digital media’s impact within democratic systems continue to grow. On the contrary, comparative studies on its effects within the realm of authoritarian governments have lagged behind.

For centuries, single-party regimes with centralized military power have characterized authoritarian leadership. The stereotype is one of a brutally repressive and omnipresent ruler, guided by informal bargaining and operating without checks and balances. Dictators primarily censor information and current research has therefore focused on this vertical, non-dynamic relationship between autocratic societies and the media. But across the globe, the rise of personalist ‘strongman’ rulers using social media to propagate information and mobilize regime supporters shows the regime’s evolving interplay with digital media.[1]

 

A new era of autocracy and message dissemination

‘Personalist ruling’ is a macro-trend fashioned from authoritarian structures that may show façades of democratic hallmarks such as the rule of law, access to open information and an electoral process. Under this government, discretion over policy and personnel is concentrated in the hands of one person and balancing the interest of stakeholder groups is key.

In 1988, personalist regimes comprised 23 percent of dictatorships. Three decades later, research shows that strongmen governments compose 40 percent of autocracies. A 2017 report from Freedom House also shows net declines in political and civil freedoms in free and partly-free countries. While it is not unwarranted to portray authoritarian governments as having full control of traditional media, the same conjectures do not readily apply to digitized media where technology intervenes in disseminating information.

One of the yardsticks for media culture in traditional autocracies is North Korea’s tight grip on external communication channels. The nation continues to rank last in Reporters Without Borders’ World Freedom Index (Freedom Index). In addition to tourists and expats in Pyongyang, North Korean elites can access the internet under Kim Jong Un’s watchful eye. Today, ordinary citizens can communicate and read the news through Kwangmyong, the government’s well-sealed intranet. 

Kwangmyon hosts between 1,000 to 5,000 state-owned websites chiefly dedicated to news propaganda and educational resources. When Kim Jong Un’s name or his predecessors are mentioned in the news, the government mandates that their font appear 20% larger than other texts on the web page. North Koreans attempting to circumvent the intranet and access content generated outside the country can be sent to concentration camps

Apart from state-owned television and radio networks, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) is currently the sole news agency that broadcasts the views of the North Korean government internationally. A 12-month project by Canadian newspaper National Post identified a pattern in the dictator’s photos posted on the site. Official government photos would regularly show Kim Jong Un either providing benevolent guidance to a group of people or uproariously laughing in a diverse range of settings, anywhere from routine inspections at a factory to missile testing. 

KCNA editorials also follow consistent themes: unity of the Korean people, harsh punishments awaiting enemies who disobey Kim Jong Un’s guidance, and tragedies or negative news from South Korea. In addition, the North Korean Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has also blocked international social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, sites that were previously accessible to foreigners in Pyongyang.

In contrast to Kim Jong Un’s impenetrable IT infrastructure, internet penetration in Russia is the largest in Europe, with 108 million users who can, not without repercussions, access information from the world wide web. But Russia still ranks low in the Freedom Index. 

Through state-owned networks and severe policies, Putin’s administration creates narratives to influence public opinion and controls foreign and domestic content,ultimately deciding which stories can make the daily headlines. Traditional media under Putin continues to be pro-government, partial, non-critical of the administration and relentlessly aimed at protecting Russian foreign and domestic politics.

In contrast to Kim Jong Un’s isolationist and airtight control of information, Russia’s digital media landscape is open. While monitored by Roskomnadzor(Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media), independent online news sites exist for public consumption in Russia. Its blogosphere, which appears to be generally free from government control, cultivated popular news sites such as Gazeta.Ru, Lenta.Ru and Polit.ru. Riga-based online news site Meduza has been aggregating Russian news and publishing its own content for three years. Meduza’s Russian site receives around 10 million unique visitors per month, while an average of 100,000 access its English-language web pages. 

According to Ivan Kolpakov, co-founder of the Meduza Project: “The Meduza Project and others like it are part of that shift not away from Russia, but on to a different level of media production which is more globalised and not just within the boundaries of the Russian Federation.” Kolpakov says that the publication, run by a team of self-exiled Russian journalists, is against propaganda from both sides.

Concurrently, although not immune from censorship laws, Russia’s social network activity is thriving. YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest have gained popularity in the Kremlin state. Notably, Russian networks have the largest piece of the social media demographic pie, with Vkontakte used by over 46 million users and Odnoklassniki seeing 31.5 million viewers per month. In spite of the appearance of normalcy under Putin’s strongman leadership, recent laws blocking Internet content and a ban on messaging and social networking apps indicate that ‘soft news’ and objective journalism continue to be threatened.

Figure 1: Statistics on Internet Penetration and Digital Media Use in Russia, Philippines and North Korea from 2016 to 2018

 

RUSSIA

NORTH KOREA

PHILIPPINES

Population

142.1M

25.4M

105.9M

Total Internet

Users

108,772,470

*---

56,956,436

Internet Users - Percentage of Population

76.4%

*---

55.5%

Top News Websites

Yandex.ru

Mail.ru

Gismeteo.ru

Rambler.ru

Fb.ru

kcna.kp

rodong.rep.kp

vok.rep.kp

---

--- 

Abs-cbn.com

Inquirer.net

Gmanetwork.com
Rappler.com

Roblox.com

Active Social Network Penetration 

63%

0%

47%

Top Social Media Platforms – Percentage of Internet Users

YouTube – 63%

VKontakte – 61%

Odnoklassnikki – 42%

Facebook – 35%

Skype – 38% 

---

Facebook – 57%

Youtube – 56%

FB Messenger – 46%

Twitter – 35%

Google+ - 34% 

Sources: United States Census Bureau; Central Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook — Internet Users; Alexa Internet, Inc. ‘The Top 500 Sites on the Web’ Report; Peterson Institute for International Economics; We Are Social and Hootsuite Global Digital Report; and Statista: The Statistics Portal. 

The Philippine media landscape is arguably the most divergent of the three personalist regimes examined here. The country has nearly defunct state-owned television and radio stations. The rest of its traditional and new media are privately-owned. While still behind Russia, mobile internet penetration in the Philippines grows at a rate of 1.5x (or 30 million users) every year, with smartphones outnumbering people living in the country. The Philippines has been named the social media capital of the world, with Filipinos spending an average of 3 hours and 57 minutes on popular sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

The power of digital media became more apparent when Rodrigo Duterte, the 16th President of the Philippines, rose to power in 2016. Duterte and his backers reportedly mobilize keyboard armies to silence dissenters and create fake accounts to amplify and regurgitate anti-establishment sentiments across the country. According to a 2017 Oxford Study on organized social media manipulation, many of these fake accounts are ‘bots’. The same study collected evidence of automated nationalistic or pro-government social media comments, harassment and trolling in the Philippines and Russia. 

Aside from fake accounts and paid trolls, other techniques include content creation to spread political ideologies and automation to inflate likes, shares and retweets of articles that artificialize popularity. According to Rappler, a news site recently shut down under the Duterte administration, reposting old content as current or developing news on Facebook — leading readers to believe that a certain government action is justified — is only one of various tactics used to spread disinformation in the Philippines. 

 

Social media and the electoral process

Digital tools have played pivotal roles in organizing protests all around the world including the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. But an area that is equally critical to examine is the role of digital tools in putting personalist leaders in power.

While Putin did not rely on official social media accounts to campaign in 2012 and 2018, the same cannot be said about Duterte and his well-oiled social media army during the 2016 national elections. With an estimated $200,000 budget, Duterte’s social media team tapped organizers and volunteers for the campaign, and created four major targets by geography: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao (the nation’s three island groups) and overseas Filipino workers. Influencers and volunteers heavily exploited Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts, weblogs and self-made news websites to amplify Duterte’s ‘Change is Coming’ election slogan. The content ramping up to the May 2016 elections was thematic: firmness in leadership, peace and order, and complete eradication of the drug trade in the Philippines. 

In contrast, the Kremlin state’s use of social media machinery has been more covert, purportedly using clandestine operations and troll farms to create a battlefield on the web. After the parliamentary election in 2011, trolling became rampant when anti-government protests were organized over Facebook and Twitter. A structured disinformation campaign was allegedly deployed to deny any election fraud allegations and to villainize the West as the source of public dissent. When former aide Vyacheslav Volodin worked as Putin’s deputy head, Volodin’s office computer was reportedly using Prism, a system that actively monitors social media activities and public sentiment using over 60 million resources. 

In the 2016 Philippine and 2018 Russian presidential elections, Duterte won with a 39.9 percent share of the total votes (against 23 percent and 21 percent of his closest opponents), while Putin was re-elected for a fourth term with 76.6 percent of the 70 percent voter turnout.

 

Conclusion

It is clear that the permeation of digital media in socio-political activities has modified state-media relations in contemporary personalist governments. A locked-down communication infrastructure coupled with overt media censorship are no longer the only hallmarks of strongmen regimes. North Korea’s quintessential authoritarian control of media channels is in stark contrast with Russia’s and the Philippines’ weaponization of digital channels for influencing human behavior. 

From Kim Jong Un’s internet blackout to Putin’s reactionary draconian policies and Duterte’s assembly of social media propagandists, it is evident that personalist rulers engage various digital media strategies to spread ideologies, sway public opinion and mobilize allies and supporters. As the world continues to embrace advancements in technology, the evolution of digital media alongside personalist regimes will continue to be a compelling area of research for academics, journalists and the general public.

 

Camille Laurente is an award-winning podcaster, digital media and public relations strategist, and writer. She is the founder of Hueman Group Media, a company that inspires people to do good through the power of audio storytelling. Her podcasts Sincerely, Hueman and SHE Innovates tackle social good issues and support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, Camille graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where she specialized in technology, media, advocacy and communications.


[1]‘New media’ and ‘digital media’ are used interchangeably, unless otherwise indicated.