Paweł, the literature on democratic backsliding tends to underplay the role of media as structurally altering political dynamics. You have been researching the articulation between media and the rise of illiberal politics in Central Europe. Can you share with us your main findings in the cases of Poland and Hungary? How should we revisit the role that media politicization and commercialization play in our democracies?
Yes, you are absolutely right to say that media as a structural puzzle of democracies has been underplayed in academic debates that seek to explain the underpinnings of the illiberal turn in politics internationally and in Central and Eastern Europe as a region. This pattern is, however, changing; analyses of the role of media and communicative practices—e.g., political public relations, political campaigning, and various forms of media activism—that rely on hybrid media landscapes are shedding increasing light on the mediated features of illiberal turn in politics.
There is still more academic research and professional work to be done to better understand the ways in which media landscapes shape and are shaped by illiberal trends in politics, as research on various media systems is at different stages of advancement. This is, for example, visible in scholarship on Poland, which has an entire tradition of normative scholarship pointing to the links between media and democratization but almost nothing on deviations from this direction, or anti-democratic anomalies. As such, it appears that we have been sleep-walking into illiberal trends emerging in relation to—or with the involvement of—media landscapes.
First, we already know that those committed defenders of traditional media who advocate that citizens should (uncritically?) put their trust in “reputable” news sources reporting on political and other stories hardly take into consideration audiences’ existing and deepening mistrust in the news. Illiberal politics thrives on the weakness of democracy, including ongoing issues within media systems. For example, over the last two decades, news media have been facing a crisis of confidence in Central Europe, the sources of which are not exclusively political, but also commercial and involve professional pressures on journalists. There is a documented perception among audiences that news media are often involved in spreading misinformation. This perception has been readily exploited by actors driving illiberal politics and launching public attacks against traditional news organizations and particular journalists.
Second, in Central Europe there are local and systemic manifestations of changes to media landscapes driven by illiberal politics. The “Hungarian case” can be predominantly explained through client-patron dynamics, while the “Polish case” can be made sense of through the retro-utopian notion of statism. For the latter, the subjection of the media system to greater state control is historically grounded in a paranoid fear of losing statehood and cultural elements which perpetuate the Polish nation. The research with which I was involved shows those trends in Hungary, finding that advertising revenues are channeled to companies close to the Fidesz government, thereby distorting market mechanisms. In Poland, statism was exhibited in abrupt systemic changes to the public media policy in 2018 that brought public service media closer to state structures.
Third, there is more research to be done to find patterns of differences and similarities in the interplay between illiberal politics and media landscapes. This is particularly important because the changes to media landscapes driven by illiberal politics are not only politically and financially beneficial, but also aim to redefine citizenship, identities, and public memories, making them a central piece of the illiberal socialization of the individual citizens subjected to the direct or indirect effects of these systemic changes.
You have also been working on the transformations of another field: public diplomacy. Here, too, media and especially social media have deeply transformed the way classic public diplomacy functions—as epitomized by the Trump presidency. Can you expand on the notion of uncertainty that you advance as key to understanding the current evolutions of public diplomacy?
In theory, the practice of public diplomacy is supposed to aid societal dialogue between different state and non-state actors of international relations, and can be metaphorically thought of as a barometer of international politics. Currently, as illustrated in “Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty,” the barometer appears to be demonstrating heightened tensions and pressures in intra-state societal relations. This is driven by what I term “the politics of uncertainty.” Although uncertainty is inherent in international relations, it is the simultaneity of political shifts amplified by digital media that brings transnational illiberal trends to the forefront of the politics of uncertainty. In the conduct of foreign policy, uncertainty affects decision-making and resonates with policymakers, businesses, consumers, and citizens, all of whom are stakeholders of public diplomacy. Driven by the simultaneity of overlapping political trends, the latest wave of uncertainty is exemplified by political events such as the annexation of Crimea, Brexit, and the COVID-19 global pandemic.
In addition, public diplomacy is shaped by the paradoxical promise of certainty: it claims that the instrumentarian power of digital media technology giants is “the certain solution to uncertain societal conditions.” Indeed, hierarchical state power is “disrupted” by the logic of digital networks and big data. In their interactions with diplomacy and statecraft, digital media reconfigure “soft power” as collaborative but increasingly formless, unstable, and disruptive. Herein lies the paradox: as the promise of certainty and opportunities for global diplomatic conversations became the mantra of the study of public diplomacy, fragmented news stories—exposure to which is altered by algorithms—began to fracture users’ media diets and political realities.
Therefore, in my work, I underscore how the hyperrealities of events that have been unfolding along multiple communicative trajectories, including grassroots campaigning on foreign policy issues, are mediated by public diplomacy and reported by news media. Mirrored by hybrid media landscapes, these hyperrealities amplify uncertainty, creating waves that increase international social anxieties. The evidence for the disruptive impact of digital media and/or social media on the practice of public diplomacy has been emerging gradually: segments of the U.S. population were targeted by external campaigns that sowed societal discord; the United States’ global leadership has been severely undermined by Donald Trump’s simulation of public diplomacy; and populist political actors destabilize diplomatic relations, disrupting diplomatic agreements or entire foreign policy regimes and launching disinformation campaigns overseas.
We tend to systematically mention Russia when discussing hybrid media campaigns. But this is part of a broader trend of illiberal regimes influencing international diplomatic culture. Can you tell us more about that aspect of your ongoing research?
Hybridity is not a notion that is inherent to illiberal politics—it is a myth. The clash of illiberal politics with the diplomatic cultures, values, and media strategies exhibited in interactions with democracies makes these illiberal trends more visible and potent, and makes it easier to tease out hybrid political forms. But we could speak of “hybridity” in public diplomacy before—for example, mergers of diplomatic culture underpinning “high culture” in international politics and the adoption of popular culture into the practice of diplomacy and statecraft, particularly public diplomacy. This resulted in a unique institutional and diplomatic practice: channeling and leveraging “low culture” in international relations.
The focus on Russia in the context of debates about hybrid warfare is a separate phenomenon that stems, I would argue, from certain scholars’ uneasiness about categorizing Russia as striving to exercise soft power, as well as from the fact that its model of public diplomacy does not mesh with Anglo-American normative expectations. Russia has, however, recently received increased attention from scholars of political communication, with some research emphasizing the “hybrid” interplays between traditional soft power statecraft, military capabilities, and cyber-interference, or simply mixing traditional soft power statecraft with information warfare.
But my research and own attempt to theorize soft power statecraft recognizes that in the field of diplomacy, democratic states, too, exhibit hybridization in relation to the governance of soft power sources and resources (e.g., through the interplay of external corporate practices with innated diplomatic routines); in relation to the media landscapes in which soft power statecraft operates—that is, landscapes in which “older” (broadcast) and “newer” (digital) media interact and determine the dynamics of the cycle of diplomatic news; and in relation to the hybridization of communicative practices and culture, i.e., ways in which popular culture, mediated by unique trans-spaces, enters diplomatic routines, becoming an informal but highly visible space for the discussion of diplomatic affairs, attracting foreign news attention, and yet exhibiting a style far from the official repertoire and institutional norms of the practice of public diplomacy (as with Donald Trump’s Twitter account).
Indeed, Trump’s populist style on Twitter was the focus of one my studies, which revealed that the way Trump used Twitter led to the implosion of public diplomacy as U.S. soft power statecraft was undermined by his carnivalesque and keyfabian style (that is inspired by the culture of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) frenchise), which primarily targeted his voting base at home. In that sense, public diplomacy became a populist mirror, providing feedback about how tough Trump was on matters of foreign policy. Yet the delivery of his public diplomacy required an ongoing effort on the part of recipient publics to make sense of his messaging, as he kept breaking the norms of public diplomacy.
Memory studies have been adding a lot to our understanding of Central and Eastern European politics. How would you assess Poland’s recent “Holocaust Law” and the PiS’ positioning on the international memory scene? Is the securitization of the past a new tool that illiberal regimes can use to promote themselves to foreign audiences?
The policymakers of the governing PiS (Law and Justice) party have attempted to turn Poland into the second state in the region, behind Russia, to introduce law underpinned by criminal provisions with a view to serve the politics of memory. Poland’s public diplomacy had previously attempted to make a mark on European collective memory by employing the international advocacy approach to challenge the distortion of memory of the Holocaust, which is considered by public diplomats, citizens, and the Polish diaspora to be culturally sensitive. The focus was the issue of so-called Holocaust misinformation, specifically the misnomer “Polish death camp” and similar phrases that often appear in foreign news media. This issue has since been hijacked by a non-public diplomacy actor, namely policymakers at the Ministry of Justice.
PiS policymakers introduced the so-called “Holocaust Law” as an amendment to the 2018 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. Following an international outcry from Israel, the US, and other states, they altered the law to remove the provision about criminal prosecution of any entity that attributes responsibility for the Holocaust to the “Polish state” and/or the “Polish nation.” The proposed PiS-sponsored politics of memory rested on the interplay of the legal notion of a “defamation of history” with the narrative arc of the “Polocaust” as a signifier of Poland’s distinct suffering.
While the law was changed in June of that year, the international dispute over the amendment represents an astute case of how illiberal practices—that is, a set of governance solutions and networked action within the structures of the state—aim to shift the dynamics of diplomacy and statecraft toward monophonic narrativization of the politics of memory. The law is likely to have major consequences, although that remains to be seen.
Our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you position yourself on the concept of illiberalism? Do you see it as bringing new conceptual elements into the discussion compared to populism? Do you see the “liberalism-centrism” of the notion as a strength or a weakness?
Yes, I think that “illiberalism” as a term is useful if it is used responsibly and in a way that advances political theory and societal understanding of what the latest trends in politics actually entail in empirical terms. I am most certainly against using it in a totalizing way—”illiberal democracy” is an excellent example of such usage, as it labels entire polities in a particular manner. In such a context, the term is more likely to end up as pseudo-intellectual academic propaganda rather than a concept that has nuanced explanatory value. I subscribe to the use of the terms “illiberal trends,” “transnational illiberal trends,” and “illiberal practices,” as these can be identified, captured in a context-dependent manner, and measured empirically; they are actually useful for making sense of the underlying processes.
The liberalism-centrism of illiberalism is due to the time of its emergence and its negation of a world order built on liberal values. It is particularly useful in a context in which liberalism is a starting point for political analysis. I am not sure how helpful it would be in other contexts—for example, foreign policy analysis of North Korea. I do hope, however, that the intensification of the debate about the effects of illiberalism on more recently democratized states will become a source of reflection about political regimes and societies such as Poland, in which liberalism has always been a minority project.
As far as states with a strong liberal tradition that have recently succumbed to illiberal trends are concerned, I hope it will become a source of reflection about the underpinnings of historically unresolved systemic issues—for example, the colonial past of the United Kingdom as a source of delusions of grandeur on the British right and of unchecked privilege and entitlement among the British left.
Dr Paweł Surowiec is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield specialising in strategic communication and political communication. His research focuses on questions relating to the reinvention of classical models of propaganda, digitalisation of political campaigning as well as diplomacy and statecraft. His academic research has been published in a number of international journals. He is the author of the research monograph, ‘Nation Branding, Public Relations and Soft Power: Corporatising Poland’ (Routledge, 2017), and the co-editor of ‘Social Media and Politics in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Routledge, 2018) and ‘Public Diplomacy and the Politics of Uncertainty’ (Palgrave, 2021)