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.