The Fourth Estate, in 1787, was an embodiment of the ‘speak truth to power’ mantra. “[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote. Burke, pictured above, would never have seen the radio, the television, or the blog, but the principle of a free, impartial, and rigorous press has long stood as part of the democratic school of thought nevertheless.
330 years later, events show that the pen and the sword are not equally matched. Reporters face harassment, threats, or death in pursuit of their duties, even in democracies. The murder of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh is only the latest example of this trend. The image of the journalist as watchkeeper has been replaced by that of the journalist as impediment – something to be trampled over if it gets in the way of populist progress. In dictatorships and under military juntas, the ability to strike at members of the press with impunity is now viewed as routine.
And an equally pernicious trend is the attempt to blur the line between state and mass media: an approach to power perhaps best known from the dictatorships of the 20th century, given new life in the 21st.
The state media today is a far more sophisticated machine because there are more avenues of attack. The USSR’s replied upon newspapers like Pravda – a former journal of arts which would gain its political character under Leon Trotsky – and broadcasting stations including Radio Moscow, coupled with heavy censorship of both local and foreign journalists. These politics of exclusion sought to keep a strict lock on what could be accessed.
The astonishing lack of trust in the news media has done away with the need for a hermetic seal on news, allowing state-sponsored news to fill the gap with a variety of techniques. Sputnik, for example, apes Western media with its delight in viral headlines and emojis – but its bald pro-Russian stance makes it an unsubtle tool. RT (formerly Russia Today), its big brother has proven a somewhat more skilled player: in addition to its wild-eyed columnists, it has featured such noteworthy figures as Noam Chomsky, developing credibility. It has also experimented with less explicitly state-led channels for foreign markets: Agence2Presse (a clear take on APF’s full name), a Front National supporting news outfit in the vein of The Gateway Pundit, is the second iteration of ProRusseTV (many of whose former journalists have gravitated to Sputnik or RT). The use of French journalists for a French audience – and the removal of any Russian state branding – don’t mean that the influence from the Kremlin is diminished.
Social media has offered another outfit altogether. On the anniversary of the abortive coup in Turkey, TRT World (a part of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) used its social media feeds to push out a distinctly pro-government message. Its message was delivered via slick videos, which had an added bonus – allowing users to respond. A quick scroll through found the majority of responses were strongly in support of Erdogan. Whether or not this simply reflected TRT’s readership is difficult to ascertain; what is more obvious is that TRT does not explicitly show its ties to the Turkish government.
And then there is the case of the bot – the ‘fake’ user, a profile rigged to blurt out things in support of or against a given candidate (with the potential for manual control as well). The Russian botnets I discussed last week are a particularly noteworthy example of this because they are so visible: they have targeted Western institution, and as a result have been exposed by Western think tanks and journalists. But studies on this ‘computational propaganda’ suggest it’s hardly a Kremlin secret – it’s simply that in many other countries, it is designed with a domestic audience in mind. The presence of these bots in Venezuela, for example, is little remarked upon both because of their relatively limited numbers and their lack of interference with Western geopolitics: nevertheless, they act as force multipliers for the Maduro government, creating an illusion of grater support.
This all feels a bit grim, especially as President Donald Trump seems keen to follow this route. Lara Trump’s Trump TV resembles Sputnik the most in its on-the-nose style of propaganda. Whilst it’s unlikely to gain new converts, even stabilising support from an existing audience – and further encouraging them to disbelieve non-state-affiliated media – is an achievement of sorts. Whilst it lacks the commonly seen underpinning of a party structure(in favour of a support for a demagogic leader), there’s certainly a case to be made for Trump TV being a kind of proto-state media.
It would be unfair to say that all state media exists purely for propaganda purposes – Al Jazeera’s reporting (when it doesn’t come to Qatar) is very high quality; the BBC, in spite of its many flaws, represents a gold standard in editorial independence. And yet, no matter how free they are from state interference, these institutions are inextricably linked into a form of soft, cultural power. Nor are non-state actors inherently agenda free: the objective press is a myth after all. The peculiar problem of the state media in the age of rising populism is the tendency to violence under illiberal governments, and the role propaganda plays in both legitimising and downplaying it.
Under more benevolent rulers, the question of how to fight it remains. There have been suggestions to bar state media channels from broadcast, but regulations fail to solve the underlying problems (and you can’t regulate every state media website). The only way to fight it is to have an engaged citizenry which can recognise the signs of propaganda, and treat it with the scepticism which it deserves.