Last week, Visegrad Insight sat down for a chat with Christopher Walker, Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to talk about sharp power and how it limits our democratic public space.
Christopher Walker is Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. Prior to joining the NED, Walker was Vice President for Strategy and Analysis at Freedom House. He holds a B.A. degree from Binghamton University and an M.A. from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is co-editor with Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, March 2016).
Visegrad Insight: What is, in fact, the concept of sharp power? And what does Wikipedia have to do with it?
Christopher Walker: Just using Wikipedia as an entry point, my colleagues and I, in an article we prepared for the Journal of Democracy at the beginning of the year, refer to this as an example of how authoritarian powers systematically manipulate the way people understand the world. We know from our own experience that the integrity of a platform like Wikipedia really relies on good faith to provide accurate information.
The examples we cited in the article showed what many felt were systematic efforts to skew and manipulate discussions, for example, about Hong Kong and Taiwan – which seemed to be organised by the Chinese state or its surrogates. And given the incredible number of people who rely on Wikipedia as an information source, this no small thing in our view.
And in my opinion, it is just one part of the larger puzzle that we are seeing in terms of how in the last decade to decade and a half there has been an effort by authoritarian powers to reshape the way people understand the world.
China and Russia are exerting influence in the realm of ideas. Looking at media and universities and think tanks and I think what we found was that in many instances, not all of them, but in many instances the effects of this engagement did not seek to encourage pluralism or meaningful competitive debate, but instead it sought to side-line systematically certain issues, to sow confusion or to cloud the debate or to systematically push the state policy line of authoritarian power. CGTN (China Global Television Network), RT (Russia Today) or Sputnik were and currently are active players in these pursuits.
And at a minimum, we felt it was worthwhile to catalyse a discussion in the debate on this as to whether these initiatives, which were customarily and almost always placed in the soft power category, really were where a clean fit there.
Some have conflated the idea with propaganda or information warfare. We have not framed it that way. We frame the concept of sharp power much more through a censorship lens. We have defined it as effects that impair free expression, compromise or neutralise independent institutions and otherwise distort the political environment.
But for our part, we leaned towards a definition that stresses the impairment of free expression, neutralising independent institutions and distorting the political environment.
Could you give us a couple of hints, some examples of how it used to work in place before a pandemic and then after a pandemic were doing so?
I think there is any number of examples that are popping up across every corner of Europe. The Czech Republic is not a bad example. Given a slew of different cases that have occurred over the last several years predating the health pandemic.
But being part of the conversation now is whether this will amplify and accelerate or somehow change the trajectory. I’m not sure we have the answer to that, but I think these are questions that need to be raised and engaged in a meaningful way, especially if the news media and civil society will find themselves in a weaker position, perhaps after the pandemic by virtue of, say, economic knock-on effects that may impact all of us.
But in this case, I think if you look at the activities of the Chinese state and its surrogates in the university and media sectors, in the Czech Republic, using lawfare to pursue independent voices in the country.
The examples we have seen at Charles University and so forth might not be an immediate cause for concern. But I think the concern arises when you see a string of episodes that then begin to form a pattern.
And when you look at the patterns that have emerged in the Czech Republic, then it’s something that deserves more attention. This ranges from the invitations to senior Chinese state-aligned conglomerates or senior advisers within the president’s office all the way down to pressure on the university system that I alluded to.
But you see other examples in southern Europe, in Italy, there have been efforts to intimidate journalists by actors who are aligned with China. So I would say this is more the censorship or the inducements to self-censorship piece of the equation.
And then there is the engagement in the media and the ideas space more generally where this is now in full bloom in Central Europe, I think. This is mostly in the sense that China is arguing that it is providing enormous help. Péter Krekó from Political Capital has done some thought-provoking work on this, which deserves more attention. But I think on all these cases, what is really needed is more scrutiny and more attention.
This is incredibly difficult when independent media and civil society are stretched thin. And I will come back to this in a little bit in the context of Central European independent media, which I think is emblematic of the media picture more broadly.
What you noted so far does not qualify so much as an alteration, but an acceleration. What changed under the COVID-19 circumstances?
This is the question we need to ask ourselves. One of the observations we have made in our recent work over the last several years is about why influential powers that at home monopolise political power and brook no dissent, would behave differently overseas? And I think, in this case, if we use China and Russia as examples, I would contend that in both cases during the last decades, these countries have become more repressive and less tolerant of dissent. This is certainly true under Xi Jinping and I think there are powerful arguments on this count in Russia’s case as well.
During the pandemic, the natural tendency in most societies is to seek security and to permit, only where necessary one would hope, temporary measures that would limit expression or somehow reasonably curtail civil liberties. Seeing this in any number of settings, I think the tendency for officials is to push those limits. And certainly, in settings like China and Russia, where there are no meaningful checks on institutional power, the impulse of the authorities is to tighten the screws.
I would be curious to know why it would be the case that the authorities in China or Russia, which are exerting influence beyond their borders, would be inclined to loosen their approach or otherwise catalyse meaningful, pluralistic discussion in their engagement beyond their borders. I’m hard-pressed to find an argument that would support this idea, but I think it’s important, too, to discuss these things.
In one of four scenarios regarding the future of information sovereignty in Central Europe, we draw conclusions for the media environment from a potential downfall of the advertising market. What are your thoughts on this?
You can only understand this part of the story by looking back 10 to 15 years, and I’ll just summarise this very quickly. I think the three of the factors that emerged in the mid to late part of the first decade of this century were, first of all, an acceleration of forces that were already underway for independent media.
So if you go back to around 2005 or so, in the US, many of our journalistic institutions were cutting their foreign correspondents, their editorial networks, and just more generally reducing their investments in independent media. And this was true in many parts of the world, maybe with relative exceptions in the Nordic countries and perhaps relatively speaking, a place like Germany. But by and large, around the world and throughout the democracies, there was enormous pressure on independent media.
The financial crisis of 2008 really deepened and accelerated this process, which was profound and created even more weakness in the independent media sector.
Broadly speaking, that was happening in parallel to the rapid rise of social media, which was becoming more of a go-to news source. Meanwhile, it was undercutting traditional forms of advertising, which is no small thing. And just to remind you in this case, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and all these platforms were coming on the scene at about the same time in the mid-2000s. Google was there a little bit earlier. But even Google was accelerating by then.
If we look back at the emergence of RT in the Russian case and Press TV in the Iranian case, while China’s international media were developing even before that period, they started to grow meaningful roots around that time.
So you had at least three very significant factors that impacted the condition of media globally: the accelerated weakening of independent media, the rise of social media platforms, and the resurgence of the authoritarians – especially with their footprint in the media and information space.
In the global context of sharp power, how do you see developments in the region?
If you fast forward to today with the possible impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think we should ask ourselves, how deep this imprint will be and in which ways the positive impacts compare to negative ones in Central Europe.
The Czech Republic, which I know reasonably well, is a country of avid readers that had a pretty dynamic media scene coming out of the 1990s. And the media sector there has taken enormous hits. While it is a country that, in my view, is still quite resilient because of its civil society, all of the neighbouring countries have taken their own meaningful hits in terms of independent media.
We really have to reckon with what this means for democracy in this region. If you have increasingly enfeebled independent media, authoritarian regimes that are increasingly engaged in the open space of the Visegrad countries. But this is also very true in South-Eastern Europe, to name just one other region.
These are profound issues because of the way people understand the world around them and the way they form their perceptions shapes politics. And I think there has been an underestimation of this power, and the media’s relevance to it, over the years.
Authoritarian regimes understand so profoundly the importance of information as it relates to power. And it is why they seek to control it at home so assiduously.
I believe democracies have to wake up to this in the coming turn. And if they do not, it will be at their own peril.
This interview is part of the #DemocraCE project.