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Media, Protest Diffusion, and Authoritarian Resilience

  • Haifeng Huang, Serra Boranbay-Akan and Ling Huang


Do authoritarian governments always censor news about protests to prevent unrest from spreading? Existing research on authoritarian politics stresses the danger that information spread within the society poses for a regime. In particular, media and Internet reports of social unrest are deemed to threaten authoritarian rule, as such reports may incite more protests and thus spread instability. We show that such reasoning is incomplete if social protests are targeted at local officials. Allowing media the freedom to report local protests may indeed lead to protest diffusion, but the increased probability of citizen protest also has two potential benefits for the regime: (1) identifying and addressing more social grievances, thus releasing potential revolutionary pressure on the regime; (2) forcing local officials to reduce misbehavior, thus reducing underlying social grievances. For authoritarian governments whose survival is vulnerable to citizen grievances, allowing the media to report social protests aimed at local governments can therefore enhance regime stability and protect its interests under many circumstances. We construct a game-theoretic model to analyze the problem and illustrate the argument with examples from China.



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Haifeng Huang is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California, Merced, 5200 N Lake Road, Merced, CA 95343 ( Serra Boranbay-Akan is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics in the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 ( Ling Huang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, University of Connecticut, 365 Fairfield Way, U-1063, Storrs, CT 06269 ( The authors thank Courtenay Conrad, Scott Gehlbach, Arturas Rozenas, Milan Svolik, Anna Bassi, Mike Munger, Benjamin Nyblade, Molly Roberts, David Soskice, Michael Thies, and Devesh Tiwari for very helpful comments. Previous versions of the article were presented at the 2010, 2011 and 2015 MPSA meetings, the 2015 ISA meeting, the SCPI-IX meeting, and the 2015 APSA meeting. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit



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