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The Media Cold War

PRINCETON – An information war has erupted around the world. The battle lines are drawn between those governments that regard the free flow of information, and the ability to access it, as a matter of fundamental human rights, and those that regard official control of information as a fundamental sovereign prerogative. The contest is being waged institutionally in organizations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and daily in countries like Syria.

The sociologist Philip N. Howard recently used the term “new cold war” to describe “battles between broadcast media outlets and social-media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership, and censorship.” Because broadcasting requires significant funding, it is more centralized – and thus much more susceptible to state control. Social media, by contrast, transforms anyone with a mobile phone into a potential roving monitor of government deeds or misdeeds, and are hard to shut down without shutting down the entire Internet. Surveying struggles between broadcast and social media in Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, Howard concludes that, notwithstanding their different media cultures, all three governments strongly back state-controlled broadcasting.