Lots of internet chatter recently, and especially this week, about media control and manipulation.
In Russia since late last year there have been increasing restrictions on media outlets and media content. The Voice of Russia (formerly Radio Moscow) ended broadcasts this week and liberal leaning RIA Novosti was absorbed by RT in December of last year. A law was passed that in effect allowed for the closing down of any website deemed inappropriate, was found guilty of illegal activity, or incited unrest. Another recent law outlawed any outward promotion or expression of homosexuality as it was deemed inappropriate for children. Today the director of Russia Today voiced support for the end of Voice of America programming on Moscow radio. And one website, Politonline.ru, announced it had developed an algorithmic-based computer program to digest content and key words to create a list of “anti-Russian” news sites.
Other interesting news came from Crimea and the Ukraine. Just before the takeover of the peninsula Russia took over Crimean television broadcasts and replaced them with programming from Moscow. The Ukraine soon threatened to follow suit, calling the Russian broadcasts full of disinformation and inciting social unrest, as opposed to healthy political dialogue. Significantly, it was reported by the western press that they also had a discourse about whether citizens deserved to have the information to make up their own minds.
News from a little further west and to the south in Turkey bore witness to Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian behavior. In the weeks leading up to the local elections, Turkey banned both Twitter and YouTube, accusing them of spreading false information about the state. Many found work-around solutions, directions for which were sometimes graffitied on campaign posters. This somewhat mitigated the directive’s effect. Lower court decisions were mostly ignored, but higher courts found the majority of the bans illegal shortly after the elections. The government eventually reversed all but a few of the bans but not before giving everyone reason to hold their collective breath for a short period as to whether or not they would follow the court directives. Erdogan has vowed to continue the fight against Twitter and YouTube; these calls do not bode well for the future of free speech, freedom, democracy, or the quest to join the European Union in Turkey.
But the most poignant news came from the United States. Two disturbing news reports have surfaced in the last few days about US attempts to control media and create dissention. One accuses the US of creating and attempting to use a social media website to promote unrest in Cuba. The US has not denied the reports of clandestinely creating the website but do take great umbrage about the suggestions that its exact nature was to promote regime change. A second report comes as further fallout from the former US computer programmer now Russian-based dissident Edward Snowden. He has warned that the United States is manipulating social media sites within the US to affect opinion. The report even suggests that British intelligence helped teach the NSA how to collect data and to promote various messages.
So what does this amalgam of reports mean? First, it shows that governments on both sides of the suddenly and seemingly not-so defunct Cold War are actively enlisted in spying in and controlling the media of not only their own citizens but those of their neighbors. Second, it shows that we might not be so different from our neighbors as we pretend or portend to be, be we Russian, Turkish, or American. I would posit that most Americans view the recent behavior of the Russian and Turkish governments with indignant revulsion. News about American spying on her own citizens and attempting to influence the nature of popular discourse will most likely be met with a shrug. I suspect our neighbors just a stone’s throw across the straits from Sarah Palin’s house might feel similarly. We should feel comfort in our common bond. Sweet dreams.