Entertainment and the Internet: Political Weapons?

Dur­ing the pre­vi­ous cen­tury author­i­tar­ian regimes used radio, tele­vi­sion, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, sports and art forms such as stage plays, music and bal­let, to make their sub­jects for­get their tribu­la­tions and enslave­ment. Com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ships excelled at this.

Internet-based social media, how­ever, has proved a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it serves as pro­pa­ganda tool and invalu­able source for intel­li­gence and counter-intelligence agen­cies. On the other hand, it can be used by adver­saries to crit­i­cize and weaken the dictatorship.

Cuba may pro­vide a good example.

Ever since he was a young man Fidel Cas­tro under­stood how impor­tant it is to get one’s mes­sage across. Once he secured absolute power he set about monop­o­liz­ing the media, sports and all art forms fully aware that the bet­ter he could enter­tain Cubans, the less they would think about lost lib­er­ties, scarci­ties and repression.

The movies shown in Cuba in the 1960s, when he and Mr. Khrushchev pushed the world to the brink of World War III, may illus­trate the point. As the con­fronta­tion with the United States reached its apex, Cuban tele­vi­sion chan­nels showed reruns of Amer­i­can TV shows star­ring David Niven and Loretta Young, as well as old films by famous actors of the 1940s and 1950s. Pic­tures star­ring Bette Davis were shown so fre­quently that view­ers got to know the lines by heart.

From 1960 to 1972 movie houses stopped show­ing Amer­i­can films and switched to pic­tures com­ing from the Soviet Union and East-European cin­e­mato­graphic indus­tries, and also select West Euro­pean motion pic­tures. Results were mixed. Years of Hol­ly­wood movies had shaped the taste of many Cuban movie­go­ers. Cult films like “The 400 Blows” and “Breath­less” were received with a yawn. Soviet movies fared even worse. Unac­cus­tomed to slow-paced, propaganda-laden affairs in black-and-white, many a film­goer sim­ply stormed out of the the­atre after 20 or 30 minutes.

Grasp­ing this, Cas­tro autho­rized infring­ing the copy­right of Amer­i­can movies so that they could be shown at the­atres and on tele­vi­sion. The first was a pirated copy of “The God­fa­ther.” Peo­ple stood in line as much as 7 hours to see it. Some watched it ten times in a week. From then on, the only Amer­i­can hits not shown to the gen­eral pub­lic were those in which US sol­diers defeated Com­mu­nist fight­ers, such as the “Rambo” series. In con­trast, “Apoc­a­lypse Now” and “Pla­toon” were exhib­ited numer­ous times.

Nowa­days Cubans watch “Friends,” “CSI Las Vegas” and many other suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can shows on the Party-controlled TV channels.

After a day toil­ing for an aver­age monthly salary of US$15, after stand­ing in line to pur­chase food­stuffs from a ration card, after wait­ing 30 min­utes under the hot sun to catch a bus, haul­ing six or eight buck­ets of water for cook­ing, bathing and wash­ing, what is bet­ter than watch how Grissom’s team con­front and resolve crimes whose under­ly­ing cause is the putre­fac­tion of capitalism?

But the nature of the Inter­net, Face­book and Twit­ter is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. There peo­ple are not only in the receiv­ing end; they can react, respond, par­tic­i­pate in group dis­cus­sions and inter­act. See­ing social media as a two-edged sword, the Cuban dic­ta­tor­ship has sharp­ened one edge and blunted the other.

Its intel­li­gence and counter-intelligence agen­cies access the Inter­net to learn what the web­sites of pub­li­ca­tions abroad pub­lish about the island, what adver­saries liv­ing in exile plan to do, or any other topic that may be of inter­est to the dic­ta­tor and his hench­men. Gov­ern­ment bod­ies are also autho­rized to trawl web­sites for polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, finan­cial, tech­no­log­i­cal, med­ical and sci­en­tific infor­ma­tion too expen­sive or impos­si­ble to acquire by other means.

On the other hand, Inter­net is what made social media pos­si­ble. And social media is an excel­lent tool to (1) pro­pa­gan­dize the dic­ta­tor­ship through Face­book, Twit­ter and other social net­work­ing web­sites and (2) learn what the foes of the sys­tem liv­ing abroad reveal.

Yet, pri­vate folks liv­ing in Cuba are denied access to Inter­net and thus to social media. This accom­plishes two goals: First, it pre­vents the free flow of infor­ma­tion and ideas and sec­ond, it makes more dif­fi­cult for dis­senters to orga­nize protests or demonstrations.

I don’t know what some rabid sup­port­ers of Com­mu­nist Cuba, who were born and raised in democ­ra­cies, enjoy unfet­tered access to Inter­net and are very active in social media, think about the Cuban dictatorship’s blunt­ing of the sword.

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