Flashing neon lights beaming out across five stages, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to fly out some leading Instagram influencers: Saudi Arabia made headlines by organizing a three-day-long electronic music festival called MDLBeast, featuring top-flight DJs like David Guetta and Steve Aoki. Human rights activists called the operation “image rehab” as the government worked to move past the international outcry over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

Saudi Arabia is far from the only country investing in soft power campaigns updated for the social media era. Chinese media companies acting as ambassadors to the government push content across Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms from more than 170 foreign bureaus. In Qatar, the Fashion Trust Arabia prize has brought fashion icons such as Naomi Campbell, Victoria Beckham and Alexander Wang to the small Gulf state, all of them uploading a trail of Instagram stories and social media posts.

The goal of these new soft power campaigns is exactly the same as when the term was coined in the 1990s by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, who wrote that “the best propaganda is not propaganda.”

And while repressive regimes are far from the only governments using “content creation,” fashion, cinema, sports, and other non-military means to assert influence, authoritarian leaders around the world are increasingly wielding soft power to unleash disinformation, expand business interests, and make new political alliances.

At Coda we’re looking at how soft power is used to forge new alliances from the Philippines where Russian disinformation has penetrated social media to Kazakhstan, where Steve Bannon courted new allies on the far-right and the far-left.