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Autocracies are pushing propaganda against democracy itself, says 'Atlantic' writer

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Consider the date June 4, 1989. In Poland, they held partially free elections. Street protests followed calling for free speech, due process and democracy. Well, those protests spread and eventually removed communists from power in Poland and neighboring countries, and within a few years, the Soviet Union ceased to be. OK. Same date, June 4, 1989 - in China, the Communist Party ordered the military to remove student protesters from Tiananmen Square. Those students were calling for the same things - free speech, due process, democracy. Soldiers arrested and killed protesters, and the crackdown that followed focused on eliminating not just people, but the ideas that had motivated the protesters.

KELLY: Consider the date June 4, 1989. In Poland, they held partially free elections. Street protests followed calling for free speech, due process and democracy. Well, those protests spread and eventually removed communists from power in Poland and neighboring countries, and within a few years, the Soviet Union ceased to be. OK. Same date, June 4, 1989 - in China, the Communist Party ordered the military to remove student protesters from Tiananmen Square. Those students were calling for the same things - free speech, due process, democracy. Soldiers arrested and killed protesters, and the crackdown that followed focused on eliminating not just people, but the ideas that had motivated the protesters.

Well, the writer Anne Applebaum deploys those two narratives at the top of her latest cover story for The Atlantic. It's headlined "Democracy Is Losing The Propaganda War." Anne, welcome.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thank you.

KELLY: So the thrust of this piece is about how autocratic regimes have turned their repressive tactics outward toward the West, toward democracies. And you write, quote, "if people are naturally drawn to the image of human rights, to the language of democracy, to the dream of freedom, then those concepts have to be poisoned." Start there. Is that really what you see countries like China trying to do?

APPLEBAUM: Yes, it is, and it's something that has increased in recent years. So I think after Tiananmen and in the early days of the internet, the Chinese did focus hard on controlling the conversation inside their own country. But as time has gone on, as they understand that there are limits to how much they can control the ideas, they've also begun to develop a narrative about the danger of democracy. So it's not just that we're not going to let you discuss, you know, what goes on inside our country. We're also going to talk about how bad democracy functions everywhere else. And we're going to do that not only in China, but they've also begun to do it in Africa, in Latin America, and even more recently, inside the United States. And around the same time, the Russians came to a similar conclusion.

KELLY: Just to jump in, I mean, this is not entirely new. What you're arguing in this piece is that what is new is the convergence of what had been, you know, disparate authoritarian influence projects in China, in Russia, other places. What we're seeing now is China aligning its goals with Russia, for example.

APPLEBAUM: So for many years, the Chinese have, of course, had a communication strategy. They've spoken about China as a great success story. They've sought to make sure that other countries agree with them on the questions they care about, about Tibet and Taiwan. They've also invested a lot of money into selling and making sure that people hear those messages. They've spent billions of dollars creating a network of television stations, radio stations, websites in Africa, in Latin America, across Asia. They have content-sharing agreements with many local, national and other media outlets.

But more recently, what we see is them using that same network not only to promote their ideas about themselves, but also, for example, to echo Russian propaganda about Ukraine - so that the Ukrainians are Nazis, for example, or that the United States is building dangerous biological weapons factories in Ukraine and that that was one explanation for the invasion or for the war. You know, this is a made-up conspiracy theory. And we see them converging around the idea that authoritarian countries are safe and secure, that democracies are divided and degenerate, and above all, that the United States is a special danger to the world.

KELLY: You just used the word echo, Anne. And I'm curious - is it just an echo, or is this a more coordinated strategy? Like are these policies evolving in sync?

APPLEBAUM: So I don't think that there's a secret room where, you know, autocratic leaders sit down like in a "James Bond" movie and they all agree about what they're going to say. I don't think it works like that. I think it's more that their strategies and their thinking have converged. They have concluded that the ideas of democracy that are in circulation that impact all of their domestic opposition - so whether it's the Hong Kong democracy movement or whether it's the Navalny movement in Russia or the women's movement in Iran, they see that those movements are inspired by outside ideas. And so they have concluded that they need to carry this fight around the world.

KELLY: So let's dig in on one example of how this is playing out. You describe in the piece a dinner party that you were at in Munich last year. You were seated with a European diplomat who was just back from Africa.

APPLEBAUM: Very perplexed by the fact that he'd met all these young people in Africa who believed Russian narratives about Ukraine - this was specifically about Ukraine - and who were saying Ukrainians are Nazis, that the war is the United States' fault. And he was really shocked because, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a colonial war. And you would think that countries that have a strong anti-colonial philosophy would support the Ukrainians.

This is what people are hearing. This is what they hear on their own national radio stations and television stations, which have these content-sharing agreements with China. This is what they read on the internet in social media that's very influenced by Russian influence campaigns there, and they don't much hear the counterarguments, and they don't hear them coming from their own media in the way that, you know, we would hope, and they don't hear them much coming from us.

KELLY: In a section of your piece that begins, here is a difficult truth, you discuss the role that Americans play. What is it?

APPLEBAUM: So there is a part of American political culture, and in particular, it's a part of the Republican Party that isn't merely influenced by authoritarian narratives, but it creates them and repeats them and spreads them deliberately. And we've seen that in the last couple of years very prominently with the rise of a pro-Russian part of the party, with the visit of Tucker Carlson, you know, the former Fox News host, to Moscow to do a kind of sycophantic interview with Vladimir Putin.

But I think it goes deeper than that. I think the use of this narrative promoting authoritarianism and attacking democracy is useful for people who also want to change the way the American political system works, and that is now the goal of a part of the party. And so the narrative about democracy being degenerate, the decline of values, the rise of chaos, the use of chaotic photographs and narratives in social media and on television - I mean, all of that, those are tactics that are known to be used in Russia and China, and they are now used by Americans in the United States. So it's - there's not an influence operation. They're doing the same thing.

KELLY: And all that is happening while we have a society, an environment where a lot more Americans are distrustful of institutions. So does anybody know what to do about this or have a proposal? And what should the U.S. do if all that you have documented in this piece is true?

APPLEBAUM: There are a wide range of things we could be doing. We could have a serious conversation about regulation of social media. We could be promoting American narratives and American arguments around the world in a way that we haven't wanted to do in the last several decades. But above all, we have to recognize it as a problem. And we have to understand that there's nothing automatic about democracy. There's no reason why everybody will accept it or why it's automatically considered to be better everywhere and that if we still believe that our system works and if we want to promote it, we need to make that argument.

KELLY: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Thank you.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.