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Challenging Information Autocracies

Hungarian social psychologist and political scientist Peter Kreko directs the Political Capital Institute in Budapest. He explains the recent rise of information autocracies and how autocrats use information instead of violence or oppression to control their people.

Interview with Peter Kreko June 23, 2022 //   17 minute read

Hungarian social psychologist and political scientist Peter Kreko directs the Political Capital Institute in Budapest. A specialist in disinformation, Kreko wrote a 2018 book about fake news and conspiracy theories in Hungary. An associate professor at ELTE University in his home country, Kreko also has written widely about the perils of political tribalism.

He explains the recent rise of information autocracies. In those nations, autocrats use information instead of violence or oppression to control their people. Kreko also tells Christopher Walsh, Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy at the George W. Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, that a key to a healthy democracy is a diversity of ownership of journalism outlets in a country. Otherwise, the media becomes concentrated in the hands of a few or the state, making it very hard to challenge those in power and to have reliable sources of information.

You’ve been writing about leaders using information instead of violence to control their publics. What do you mean by this?

Informational autocracies, according to Sergei Guriyev and Daniel Treisman, are a new type of autocracy that characterizes the 21st century. It does not put violence and oppression in the center of their way of exercising power. Information autocracies use information as the main tool for manufacturing legitimacy for the regime and changing the behavior of citizens and voters.

Information autocracies are special in that they define themselves usually as some kind of democracy, even if the democracy is mostly not liberal and not based on the rule of law. They use the term “democracy” strictly in a populist and majoritarian sense: the will of the people.

[An informational autocracy] does not put violence and oppression in the center of their way of exercising power. Information autocracies use information as the main tool for manufacturing legitimacy for the regime and changing the behavior of citizens and voters.

Informational autocracies are pretty cautious about their image in the international domain, so they want to use as less violence and direct oppression as possible. They would like to show up with as high legitimacy from the public as possible. Viktor Orban's Hungary is increasingly becoming an important example of this kind of informational autocracy. But Hungary is not the only one.

This aspect of exercising power increasingly exists in the democratic world. If we don't recognize that, we would believe disinformation would only come from outside, from the fringes. Increasingly, that is not the case.

You mentioned Hungary as an example of an informational autocracy. Are there others we should be watching from the democratic world?

Russia’s autocracy has its informational element, but it's also a dictatorship using the most classical tools, especially these days, for suppressing dissent. Russia is not an informational autocracy anymore, especially since the starting of the invasion.

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In Central and Eastern Europe, Serbia is an emerging example with an increasingly centralized, but not homogeneous media space.

According to some observers, during the presidency of Donald Trump, there were some elements of exercising power that made it similar to an informational autocracy. But if you can't occupy the whole media space or a large segment of it, then we cannot really talk about informational autocracies.  

As you know, some in the United States are enamored with the Hungarian model of illiberal democracy. They would argue: “Look, you have Viktor Orban who is popular. He's carrying out the will of his people. In fact, this is a democracy." How do you respond to those kinds of opinions? What makes Hungary so concerning?

I am going to give you three examples.

First, let’s imagine that a U.S. president totally changed the Constitution and put loyalists in all the federal institutions so they are occupied by the people of one administration. The checks and balances would be systemically switched off.

In Hungary, the Constitutional Court, which plays a bit of a similar role to the U.S. Supreme Court, is literally full of Fidesz loyalists. This body has been the most important counterbalance to the executive and legislative power. But it has stopped operating as a brake and is more part of the engine. So is the President.

So, one element is occupation of the institutional system. A second element is occupation of the media.

Let's assume that only the left- or right-wing media dominates the U.S. media system. Practically, 80-90% of the media would be in the hand of the president.

What happened in Hungary was a quite remarkable centralization of media. More than 500 media outlets were put in a huge foundation called KESMA. In a country of 10 million people, this organization dominates about 80% of the media.

Also, the overwhelming majority of the state advertisement goes to pro-governmental media. The state is the biggest advertiser in Hungary, so it all goes to the media that favors the government. Private companies increasingly follow the lead because they are afraid they can be punished if they do not advertise in the state-owned media. The government does not have a total occupation of the media space, but it does have a hegemony.

The third example is that the state in Hungary interferes in the economy in a quite brutal manner. In some sectors of the Hungarian economy, such as the media, energy, banking, telecommunications, and tourism sectors, state-owned companies and companies close to the highest echelons of power are taking over. A healthy competition in the economy is more and more distorted.

Of course, if you have all the tools in your hand, you can create an environment where your mistakes don’t matter but the mistakes of your opponent matter a lot. Then, when the citizens are not informed about how many people died in COVID, as happened, citizens follow the guidelines of the government because they do not necessarily have any alternative source of information. They do not seek other sources.

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In this environment, it's easy to seem very popular because popularity is partially about how you can dominate the public. It does not necessarily mean they would be popular in a more balanced media environment.

In some sectors of the Hungarian economy, such as the media, energy, banking, telecommunications, and tourism sectors, state-owned companies and companies close to the highest echelons of power are taking over. A healthy competition in the economy is more and more distorted.

But, yes, Viktor Orban is popular in Hungary. No question about that. Those who voted for him in the last election were his voters, and, yeah, the elections were unfair but free: no ballot stuffing, no cheating, but a very uneven competition. But if you have the media, if you have all the institutions, creating your popularity is only a technical issue. You can win elections with keeping the public ignorant about the most important issues.

What should elected leaders who are small "D" democrats, do to challenge emerging or even established illiberal leaders?

The most important thing is media pluralism. That's the key.

If the media arena is plural, even if it is polarized, but plural, by which I mean that the ownership structure is more fragmented, and you don't have hegemony of certain narratives and political forces in the media domain, then it is difficult to totally take over the public institutions. If you make mistakes, voters will react and that will be seen in your popularity.

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If there is no media pluralism, then it is increasingly difficult for anyone — journalists, NGOs, opposition partisans, citizens — to challenge the ones in power. This is not just by accident: If we look at most of the emerging illiberal leaders, the first thing they focus on is the media.

Logically, if there is no strong independent media to challenge the popularity of the government, you can wonder how democratic the decision-making is at the polls. The voters simply do not have enough information to make their decisions.

If there is no media pluralism, then it is increasingly difficult for anyone — journalists, NGOs, opposition partisans, and so on — to challenge the ones in power. This is not just by mistake. If we look at most of the emerging illiberal leaders, the first thing they focus on is the media.

Some legal scholars argue the right to information should be a primary right. If voters cannot exercise this right, we cannot talk about rule of law and a democratic environment.

Where do you see those resisting illiberalism succeeding? Are there specific examples?

Yes, there are some. I would say the United States. The last election might be considered a defeat over illiberalism. It might come back; this is the nature of these struggles. You have to keep fighting for liberal democracy.

A recent European example is Slovenia, a country of two million people. Janez Jansa, an illiberal leader,  wanted to take over the media, too. But he did not follow the same pro-Russian line as Orban, even though they were allies in their fights against Brussels. He was a different kind of illiberal than Orban. Still, he was defeated by a broad opposition and an NGO coalition.

We can also mention France. Marine Le Pen, who embodies all the illiberal ideas that we can imagine, was defeated in the presidential election. The election also was a wake-up call because she gained 42% of the votes. In the next election, we could have a president of France who embodies all this illiberal character.

To some extent, we're talking about backsliding democracies. Can they resurrect themselves? If so, where do you see that happening?

Macedonia is a good example. There was a clearly illiberal leader, Nikola Gruevski, who was a big fan of the West, the United States, George W. Bush particularly, and the European Union. He ended up being a strong ally of Vladimir Putin and the Chinese.

The reason Nikola Gruevski failed as a prime minister was that he was heard in some audio leaks talking about his business with the Chinese. He was heard talking about how much the Chinese will pay him back from the motor highway tenders. Also, it turned out that he used violence against a few journalists. There were other abuses, too.

The key point is that even in an environment where the state party strongly dominates the media, he could be challenged. This series of events led to an avalanche that swept him out of power. Now, Macedonia is heading more consciously towards a European Union (EU) membership.

You mentioned the EU. What else might Western democracies offer to backsliding democracies to help them reorient themselves?

Very good question. The U.S. and the European Union still can offer a carrot and a stick.

A carrot in that they can can offer direct incentives in terms of aid, investments, and trade agreements. For most illiberal leaders, money matters. Not necessarily just money for the state but money for private interests.

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The West cannot provide the same kind of corrupt deals that Russia and China want to provide. Russia and China want leaders to step into the money trap because, if they do, they are easy to blackmail. The West doesn’t have the same kind of incentive system as autocratic superpowers or wannabe superpowers.

The West also can offer a stick with the classic softer tools of state diplomacy, like diplomatic isolation. Some of these tools still work.

At the same time, this approach might change after the Russian invasion. The emerging narrative among illiberals is that the West has lost its power. The United States has lost its power. The European Union has lost its power. Illiberal leaders are less afraid of breaking the rules of the Western liberal world because they are less afraid of the consequences. But in its response to Russia, the West has clearly shown its strength.

Viktor Orban's statement is that China is already dominating the world. If you want to team up with the leaders of the world, and you have a perception that the West is on the decline and the East is on the rise, then you will turn more to the East for support and team up with Russia.

The biggest challenge for the West is to show its strength. I wrote an article about “authoritarian inflation.” Russia and China are generally quite good at projecting a more powerful image than the Western world. In light of the unexpected unity in the West in the Ukrainian crisis, maybe this can be a game-changing moment. The West can show the world that it still matters and can achieve its goals.

Let me follow up on that line of thought. How might the West show to nations that are on the fence the strength of democratic values like a free press, an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech?

This is a challenging question because the dominant narrative among illiberal countries is don't look at the process, look at the outcomes. Is freedom of speech a merit in itself, or do you want to live in a good country? Do you want better salaries and national pride? If you want national pride, does freedom of the judiciary really matter? Is the separation of powers a merit in itself, or should you just focus on the outcome?

Illiberal leaders use this argument without openly arguing for authoritarian practices. Efficiency is the key.

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The efficiency narrative is appealing to many. The only way you can challenge it is to point to specific examples where efficiency can backfire. Point to where you can prove that checks and balances are slower but there is an advantage to democratic decision-making. The world now has a worst practice that it wants to avoid. If you concentrate power in the hands of one man such as Vladimir Putin, then you can see the result.

The cynical argument of illiberal leaders is that the process does not matter; the outcome matters. You have to point to the problems at the outcome level. In young, fragile democracies, democratic decision-making is not necessarily seen as having a value of its own.

In your research, what have you found are the most important conditions for a country to make a transition to democracy?

Peer pressure and zeitgeist are very important. You can see similar patterns in the big democratization trend of Central and Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union collapsed and lost its influence in the region. You had a change of zeitgeist with a very strong magnetic appeal of the United States and the European Union. Many saw a better alternative after their bad experiences with autocracy.

What we can be hopeful about is that there is no such thing as a perfect autocratic leader. The more negative experiences you have, the more public opinion might think that the West is not always to blame.

A country on the way of de-democratization might have to experience the hell of a non-democratic regime. You then understand the advantages of democracy. That sounds depressing because people have to experience what it feels like if there is no real alternative, when the leader makes bad decisions and the bad decisions have consequences.

What we can be hopeful about is that there is no such thing as a perfect autocratic leader. The more negative experiences you have, the more public opinion might think that the West is not always to blame. There might be some problem with the leader and then slowly something can happen.

Unfortunately, even though there are examples of nations transitioning to democracy, there are more examples of de-democratization from the last one or two decades than re-democratization.

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