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The Media Cold War

To commemorate its founding 25 years ago, PS is republishing a selection of commentaries written since 1994. In the following commentary from 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter issued an early warning about attempts by authoritarian regimes to crack down on independent journalism and disseminate disinformation online.

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.

These intra-media struggles are interesting and important. The way that information circulates does reflect, as Howard argues, a conception of how a society/polity should be organized.

25 years of the World's Opinion Page

Project Syndicate celebrates its 25th anniversary with PS 25, a collection of our hardest-hitting commentaries so far.

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Project Syndicate celebrates its 25th anniversary with PS 25, a collection of our hardest-hitting commentaries so far.

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