Spin Dictators new style
Modern tyrants or spin dictators speak the language of democracy, and are therefore difficult to get rid of, writes Caroline De Gruyter. Uprisings are less likely.
A Hungarian who had worked abroad for many years returned to his native country with his wife after his retirement. There, one day, he was approached by a think tank in Budapest: did he want to participate in a podium debate about his area of expertise?
Like many pensioners, he wanted to share his knowledge with others. He said yes. The debate night was fun. In retrospect, he realized that he was the only one who had criticized the Hungarian government policy. Other panelists had deftly maneuvered around it.
A few days later, the tax authorities were on the doorstep, with a long list of questions. They dig through his entire accounting of years. Insinuated everything. Asked for documents he didn’t have. Threatened with additional taxes, fines. It was a nightmare. For weeks, he was busy with nothing else. Eventually, they dropped out. But he saw it as a warning: if he would get it in his head again to talk frankly and freely, then they would nail him to the pole fiscally.
That’s how things work in Hungary today. Debate nights seem free and uncensored. But if you say something unwelcome, you get the tax authorities on your roof, which makes life difficult for you. No wonder this man doesn’t want his name and even his field mentioned. Oh, woe betide him if he is upsetting the authorities again.
This example illustrates how many contemporary autocracies work: under democratic cover.
That makes it hard to put your finger on it. In the past, you could unequivocally confront dictators with atrocities, human rights violations and undemocratic behavior. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao wore uniforms and ruled through the barrel of a rifle. They put down demonstrations, censored newspapers, drove entire populations over the cliff.
Modern spin dictators are more slick.
They are less violent and monopolize power not with military display but by taking control behind the scenes in a sophisticated and invisible way. Instead of shooting protesters, they blackmail them with sex videos or cause them to lose their jobs.
They no longer ban newspapers, but ensure that business friends buy up those newspapers and make them loyal. They do not exclude parliaments, but slowly hollow them out – until only the façade remains.
In a world where video images go viral with one click and where money flows are international, that kind of charade pays off. It has long enabled modern potentates such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others to tighten the reins at home thanks to modern communication technologies, without suffering very much financially or reputationally.
In their book, Spin dictators. The changing face of tyranny in the 21st century, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman systematically explain how this works with hundreds of concrete examples. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew started it, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori copied it, and since then, it has been applied and refined worldwide.
Why is it so hard to stop spin dictators?
Because every democracy is full of shades of grey (in every country sometimes things happen that are on the edge), but especially because appearances – the spider – are so deceptive.
The Sudanese army murders half Darfur, and the Sudanese justice minister promises the UN Human Rights Council that he will “bring the perpetrators to justice”. Of course, that doesn’t happen. European politicians reprimand Prime Minister Viktor Orban about the umpteenth Hungarian newspaper that, under a new owner, only spreads state propaganda. Orban’s reply: that is a business transaction, you cannot prove that I have anything to do with it.
Nowadays, spin dictators have more support among the population.
They do see to it. Due to the polarization, the protest is less massive
Modern tyrants speak the language of democracy, making democratic concepts meaningless. They use referendums, as Putin did, to “legitimize” the robbery of Ukrainian territory.
They have talk shows, opinion polls and elections. Putin, Erdoğan, and Hugo Chavez made themselves popular with the people for years.
Once they had the country in their pocket, they could afford all sorts of things – people continued to support them because they really believed they were living in a democracy.
That is why it is so difficult to get rid of modern spin dictators.
People often hated old-school dictators. They were able to stay on for years, but once there was a critical mass against them, things could go quickly: only the army had to ‘turn around,’ so to speak. Nowadays, many people support spin dictators. They do see to it. There are many countries that are completely polarized, such as Brazil and the United States. Because of the polarization, the protests are not as massive.
According to recent research from Harvard University, this significantly reduces the chances of success of street protests.
Popular uprisings used to be built from the ground up. This promoted unity and solidarity. Demonstrations are organized using social media. The sense of club loyalty is weaker. Protests are fading fast. The authorities use advanced technology for propaganda, and they don’t leave a trace.
Hungary uses Pegasus spyware that it does not buy directly from the Israeli producer, but through intermediaries.
“We live in a time of digital authoritarianism,” a Harvard researcher told The New York Times. The success of street protests is less determined by their size and duration, as they used to be. Even if protests are massive – as they are now in Iran – that is no guarantee of success.
Nowadays, you also have to break down the power base of spin dictators. And that, as we see every day in Hungary, requires patience, shrewdness and at least as long a breath as the spider dictator himself had when he started his advance.