State-manipulated media

The government is now bolstering the false perception that most citizens stand with it, with the result that it is able to justify crackdowns on the political opposition and advance antidemocratic changes to laws and institutions without a proper debate

The media outlets that are financed by our taxes have never been so heavily under editorial control or influence by the government. We are being enslaved by a state-controlled media whose editorial freedom has been taken away by government influence, pressure, or money. These outlets are increasingly being used to push government propaganda.

Information is being concentrated in the hands of a few elites, the few who are in political power. We are living in a society where the state has significant control over the media and where the temptation for our rulers to abuse this power for their own ends is too great to resist. Given the chance, our politicians are using their sway over the media to manipulate information reaching the public, serving their private interests at the expense of society. The worst social outcomes can easily be predicted where the media is more heavily controlled by the government.

In the case of our explicitly state-owned media outlets, it is not difficult to imagine how the government influences media-provided information. These outlets are financed entirely by the state and consequently do not rely on consumers to remain afloat. Since they are beholden to the state for funding, state-owned media outlets have a strong incentive to avoid being critical of the current government. Furthermore, as state-owned enterprises, these outlets are run exclusively by government-appointed directors who determine both the stories that will be covered and the light in which these stories will be conveyed. Politicians in power thus choose directors and editors who will do their bidding, creating heavily biassed news.

Our state-manipulated media tends to take two specific forms: information withholding, in which the state prevents media outlets from disseminating unfavourable news, and misinformation, in which the state uses its control to bias news in a way that favours incumbent politicians or to fabricate untruthful news that will favour these actors. If voters do not receive relevant information about the policy behaviour of politicians or receive information about this behaviour that is false, then the monitoring capacity of the media is compromised, and the information it provides cannot be used as the basis for voter punishment.

This means two negative things for policy. On the one hand, politicians who refuse to pursue policies in the public’s interest will not be effectively weeded out via the election process, while, on the other hand, if political agents know this, they have an additional incentive to indulge in the creation of policies that serve private rather than public ends.

Objectively, the consequence is that less information and/or less accurate information about the behaviour of politicians and political happenings reaches the public, compromising voters’ ability to use the media to hold unscrupulous political agents accountable. It is objective because the occurrence is independent of citizens’ knowledge about the status of information manipulation in this country. Subjectively, the consequence of state-manipulated broadcasting is dependent on the citizens’ awareness of the extent of media manipulation in our country.

Our state broadcasting system has long been suffering from a credibility crisis. We have long been aware that the information reaching us is filtered and have lost trust in media-provided information, discounting even accurate information that reaches us because we can never be certain of its credibility.

Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in the last general election, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate. The incumbent government employed armies of “opinion shapers” to spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media.

The government is now bolstering the false perception that most citizens stand with it, with the result that it is able to justify crackdowns on the political opposition and advance antidemocratic changes to laws and institutions without a proper debate. Worryingly, state-sponsored manipulation of broadcasting means is often coupled with broader restrictions on the news media that prevent access to objective reporting and render the weaker of us more susceptible to disinformation.

Coupled with that, in spite of some weak reforms in our national broadcasting set-up, international standards are still not completely met, and the few we have are not properly implemented and promoted. But even if we were to introduce such standards, we would have to redress a situation where government officials providing information are undertrained, too few, or supporting a culture of secrecy. There is still too much bureaucracy, putting objective and factual information out of reach for the general public.

Information is increasingly being seen as a common good, whose protection falls on all citizens concerned with the quality of public debate. It is heartening to see that in the current scenario where the truth and facts are being suppressed, distorted, or fabricated, civil society has felt it a duty to develop its own resilience. Whereas our government should be in the lead in ensuring transparency and full disclosure of the truth by means of its national broadcasting system, it is dangerously afforded to ignore a threat that undermines the foundations of democracy and national security.

Successfully countering state-manipulated broadcast media and restoring trust in it will take time, resources, and creativity. In the absence of a comprehensive campaign to deal with this threat, manipulation and disinformation techniques could enable our ruling regime to expand its power and influence while permanently eroding user confidence in our national broadcasting system as a whole.