The tweets started arriving in August, and they did not mince words. One of the first accused the South Korean government of being "a prostitute of the United States." The Twitter account, under the name "uriminzok," or "our nation," seemed to be part of a sprawling North Korean digital operation that included a Facebook account (registered as a man interested in "meeting other men," but solely for "networking purposes") and a series of YouTube videos meant to celebrate the might of the North Korean military.
A spokesman for the North Korean government quickly denied any involvement with the Facebook and Twitter accounts, but he acknowledged that they were the work of government supporters living in China and Japan. The owner of the Facebook page (which the Palo Alto, Calif., company eventually deleted, citing violation of its terms of service) told a South Korean news agency that it was run by a Pyongyang-based publishing outlet affiliated with the government. Apparently, even the notoriously isolated rulers of North Korea know how to practice what the U.S. State Department calls "21st-century statecraft."
While authoritarian governments continue to censor the Web and crack down on bloggers—a few days ago, Iran sentenced the controversial blogger Hossein Derakhshan to 19½ years in prison for "insulting sanctities," among other charges—they are also increasingly using the Internet for their own propaganda. Officials are pouring resources into social media and hitting the blogs to disseminate pro-government views and undermine their critics. And they're succeeding: The decentralized nature of online conversations often makes it easier to manipulate public opinion, both domestically and globally. Regimes that once relied on centralized systems of media control can now deliver ideological messages more subtly, with the help of little-known intermediaries like anonymous commenters on websites.
Chinese authorities have established a formidable online propaganda operation, much of it geared to internal needs. Not only do they train and pay bloggers to try to steer dissenting online discussions in a more favorable direction, they also send text messages with inspirational Maoist quotes, promote computer games in which players fight corrupt officials, and design patriotic ring tones. (On National Day in 2009, millions of customers of state-controlled China Mobile woke up to discover that their ring tones had been replaced with a nationalistic tune sung by the actor Jackie Chan.)
The Kremlin is not far behind. It relies on the services of several high-profile bloggers who promote the government's talking points, helping the Kremlin to reach the hip digital audiences who avoid its masterful propaganda on TV. But the authorities haven't given up on television altogether. Some of the Kremlin's Internet cardinals even get to co-host their own shows during prime time. Russian authorities are also embracing new platforms. In early 2010 the Duma announced a proposal to give tax breaks to firms that feature patriotic themes in their computer games.
The North Korean case is unusual, of course. Ordinary citizens have no access to the Web, so the tweeting is presumably meant to tease South Koreans, who aren't allowed to visit North Korean websites without permission from their own government. In August, Seoul quickly blocked access to the North Korean tweets, probably to the great delight of the North Korean authorities, who seem to relish any opportunity to highlight the South's undemocratic regulations.
North Korea's Internet presence has traditionally been limited to a handful of official sites, but the situation is slowly beginning to change. Earlier this year, South Korean authorities accused the North of penetrating South Korean blogs and forums to spread rumors that the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March 2010—one of the thorniest issues in recent relations between the two countries—was orchestrated by Seoul in order to blame the disaster on Pyongyang.
This doesn't mean that there are hordes of North Korean government officials who spend their days surfing indie rock blogs. Such latitude might undermine the morale of government bureaucrats: Once they got on Facebook, they might start learning about capitalism by playing FarmVille. Such operations are probably executed much as they would be by any other government, by outsourcing them to the private sector or, at minimum, encouraging those who sympathize with the government
North Korea aside, most authoritarian governments have already accepted the growth of the Internet culture as inevitable; they have little choice but to find ways to shape it in accord with their own narratives—or risk having their narratives shaped by others. Once they realize that censorship doesn't work in an environment where new blogs can be set up in a matter of seconds, they turn to propaganda. Instead of blocking the views that they don't like, they seek to marginalize them, often by undermining the credibility of critics. Accusing them of being Western stooges often does the trick.
For all the supposed omnipotence of China's censorship apparatus, even Chinese leaders acknowledge that online spin can be more effective at diffusing online tensions. Wu Hao, a local official who's become the godfather of China's Internet propaganda, said last year that "public opinion on the Internet must be solved with the means of the Internet." It's for this reason that the government has nurtured a digital army of online commentators—known as the 50-Cent Party for the scant pay they receive for each comment—who eagerly perform damage control on the Chinese Internet.
Fifty-centers are only rarely used to promote some genuinely new party position, but rather as a means of containing the online reaction to sensitive political issues, predominantly by seeding doubt. The governments of Azerbaijan and Nigeria have experimented with similar schemes. For all their supposed fear of the Twitter Revolution, the Iranian clerics in Qom have been running blogging workshops—mostly targeting religious women—since 2006. Their goal is to influence online discourse about highly sensitive issues like the role of women in Iranian society.
There is also a more pragmatic reason for authoritarian governments to go online: Many of their opponents are already active in this space. Countless Facebook groups in support of Gamal Mubarak—who may soon succeed his father at the helm of Egypt—sprouted up after many young Egyptians took to the site to vent their criticisms and publicize antigovernment protests. (The junior Mr. Mubarak claims no relationship to his online boosters.)
Something similar is happening in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez, after seeing the opposition use Twitter to mobilize campaigns against him, jumped on the bandwagon, gaining nearly 900,000 followers in five months. Using the name Chavezcandanga (in Spanish, candanga means "the devil," but Venezuelans also use the term to describe someone naughty and wild), Mr. Chávez has been avidly tweeting his way through the recent parliamentary election campaign. His Twitter response to the results of last weekend's election: "The squalid ones said they won. Well, let them keep winning like this!" Given his designs for a transcontinental revolution, Mr. Chávez may also see Twitter as a way to mobilize supporters in other Spanish-speaking countries, who don't always have the privilege of watching "Aló Presidente," his Sunday TV show.
In many of these propaganda fights, the quality of one's arguments often matters far less than their quantity. Victory often comes down to who can construct the most impressive online persona by adding new friends and writing witty tweets. Incumbents, who have state resources at their disposal, usually enjoy a significant advantage. A few months into his Twitter adventure, Mr. Chávez announced a plan to allocate 200 staffers and state funds to boost his Twitter presence.
As the public sphere has grown decentralized and media based in the West have lost their dominance in setting the global agenda, it has become easier for governments—as well as for corporations, fringe movements and anyone else with an ax to grind—to promote their agendas. Bribing 100 bloggers is often much easier than bribing the editorial board of one newspaper.
In doing this, of course, anxious authoritarians are simply following wider market trends. Helping clients to establish effective control online has already become a lucrative industry. Australia's uSocial offers to place a story of your choice on the front page of popular social news sites like Digg.com, as well as to sell you new Facebook friends (1,000 for just $197) or new Twitter followers (1,000 for just $87). Although most Internet companies frown on such abuse of their services, they cannot root them out completely—and, as existing brands try to master the digital space, the demand is poised to grow.
Or consider Megaphone, a desktop tool designed by a group of Israeli activists and released during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. Megaphone identifies any new online polls about Israel and immediately prompts its users to visit the poll's website and cast their votes. It also tracks favorable articles about Israel in the international press, urging users to push such stories to the "most emailed" lists on websites by sending them to all their friends. Moscow and Beijing would presumably love to have a Megaphone-like tool the next time that the international press accuses them of starting yet another war in the Caucasus or suppressing the rights of Tibetans.
Can supporters of democracy in the West stop or at least thwart the growth of authoritarian influence on the Internet? Maybe. Should they try? That is a much harder question to answer. Western governments could fight this insidious new form of state propaganda by creating, for example, some kind of website for rating the authenticity of Russian or Chinese online commentators. Alternatively, all comments from one IP address might be aggregated under a unique online profile, thus exposing the operatives working from the offices of the government's propaganda department.
But in most cases, such Western interventions would also erode online anonymity and put dissidents' lives on the line. The best that Western governments can do is to educate—in person or remotely—those running important political websites about how to build communities, keep their content visible despite all the spin and avoid being overwhelmed by pro-government intruders.
In the meantime, as long as it helps to embarrass its enemies in the South, a tweeting North Korea is also a stronger North Korea. American officials, still giddy with enthusiasm for digital statecraft, have been a little too quick to welcome North Korea's entry into the world of social media. "The Hermit Kingdom will not change overnight, but technology once introduced can't be shut down. Just ask Iran," tweeted the U.S. State Department's Philip Crowley in August. Maybe—but technology, once introduced, can also be co-opted to serve ends very different from free expression. Just ask the Kremlin or China's 50-centers.