This report explores how the leading authoritarian regimes have exploited democratic norms and transformed the market for information into a dangerous tool to exert antidemocratic sharp power. Under enormous economic and political pressures, independent media are struggling to respond. News outlets face wrenching changes in their business models, driven by technological revolution. And features of the media system once seen only as strengths—such as competition, openness, and fair-mindedness—have also turned out to be weaknesses.
In a world where hostile state actors enjoy great market power and no accountability, free speech is too important to be left to the free market.
- Unfettered or “faux-commercial” competition, openness to financial intimidation, fair-mindedness, and newsworthiness are features of the modern media ecosystem that can be exploited by malign actors.
- Russia disrupts and subverts the information systems of targeted countries through state media outlets and applying pressure through covert financing. China’s sharp power strategy involves, in part, buying up or collaborating with mainstream outlets while gaining influence over key content dissemination infrastructure.
- A blueprint for action on norm-building is overdue. Allowing commercial pressure alone to dictate information flows effectively sells political decision-making to the highest bidder.
- No single or simple solution will blunt the impact of sharp power on the information systems of democracies. An effective response to authoritarian media influence requires an array of normative, legal, and practical changes.
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Firming up Democracy’s Soft Underbelly: Authoritarian Influence and Media Vulnerability [PDF]