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This chapter explores how autocrats use propaganda to explicitly threaten repression, which often occurs via codewords. Threats of repression remind citizens of the consequences of dissent, but they are costly. When propaganda apparatuses seek credibility, threatening repression makes persuading citizens of regime merits more difficult. Threats of repression also endow sensitive moments with even more significance to citizens. We show that propaganda-based threats of repression are more common where electoral constraints are non-binding. Even as Ben Ali was losing power in Tunisia, for instance, his propaganda apparatus chose to concede citizen frustrations and emphasize the government’s determination to do better, rather than advertise the military’s loyalty and training, both routinely cited during the succession crisis in Uzbekistan. We find that Cameroon’s Paul Biya issues threats in English, but not in French; his political in-group is francophone, his out-group anglophone. We find that the CCP is far more likely to explicitly threaten repression in the Xinjiang Daily, which targets the ethnic Uyghur out-group, and on the anniversaries of ethnic separatist movements.
Where electoral constraints are relatively binding, election seasons constitute profound threats to autocratic survival. Regular elections offer citizens an opportunity to vote against the regime and a focal moment to coordinate mass protests. These electoral propaganda campaigns are critical for regime survival, yet, precisely because they recur, are easiest for citizens to discount. We refer to this tension as the propagandist’s dilemma, and it is acute where autocrats confront relatively binding electoral constraints. To understand how autocrats manage the propagandist’s dilemma, we combine our data with field research in Congo. These propaganda campaigns, we find, begin months before election day, slowly build, and attempt to simultaneously cast the electoral outcome as uncertain and yet prepare citizens to accept the autocrat’s “legitimate” victory. Where autocrats confront no electoral constraints, by contrast, the propaganda spike occurs immediately before election day, and in some cases the post-election spike is even greater.
This chapter develops a formal model of autocratic propaganda. Citizens are uncertain about the link between policy and outcomes, and hence the regime’s performance. Citizens are also uncertain about the regime’s capacity for repression. Autocrats use propaganda to shape citizens’ beliefs about both. Where relatively binding electoral constraints compel autocrats to employ propaganda to curry support, their propaganda apparatuses must acquire credibility by conceding bad news and policy failures. We refer to this as “honest propaganda.” In the absence of electoral constraints, autocrats employ absurd propaganda, which signals to citizens that the regime has no need for their support: that its hold on power rests on coercion, not persuasion. Our theory generates a range of predictions about how propaganda strategies change with features of the autocrat’s strategic environment, including the threats posed by elite coups and alternative sources of information to citizens.
This chapter probes the politics of pro-regime propaganda. Using a series of statistical techniques, we show that propaganda apparatuses in constrained autocracies cover the regime much like Fox News covers Republicans. Where autocrats are totally unconstrained, pro-regime propaganda is roughly four times more positive than Fox News is pro-Republican. To rule out the possibility of reverse causality and omitted variable bias, we focus on two countries for which our data extend back decades: Gabon and China. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Third Wave of Democracy forced President Omar Bongo to concede democratic reforms, his propaganda strategy changed as our theory predicts. We observe no such change in China, where the Third Wave of Democracy occasioned no such reforms. Chinese propaganda, we show, is driven by politics, not socio-economic change. With Xi Jinping poised to rule indefinitely, CCP propaganda is now more effusive than at any point since the Cultural Revolution. Using list experiments to mitigate preference falsification, we confirm that Chinese citizens view CCP pro-regime propaganda as threatening, not persuasive.
Our theory treats nominally democratic institutions as constraints that autocrats struggle to loosen and citizens’ beliefs as the central battlefield on which the struggle for political change is waged. After reviewing the book’s key findings, in this chapter we use our theoretical framework to suggest a series of important questions about autocratic politics in the early twenty-first century. We explore how the world’s autocrats are attempting to shape their citizens’ beliefs by weaponizing distinctly modern technologies, not just propaganda and censorship. We also discuss how the world’s autocrats are attempting to loosen the electoral constraints that bind them. Although this book is about propaganda in autocracies, it has important implications for politics in democracies, especially as a series of “populist-authoritarian” leaders take power across Europe and North America. We argue, in particular, that Xi Jinping’s propaganda strategy helps us understand the process of democratic erosion underway across the world. We conclude by discussing the book’s implications for public policy.
Does propaganda discourage the sorts of protests that increasingly constitute the chief threat to autocratic survival? Answering this question is complicated by the fact that propaganda is strategic. The regimes that employ more pro-regime propaganda and threaten citizens with violence are systematically different than those that do not. Using a range of estimation strategies, we show that spikes in pro-regime propaganda across autocracies are associated with a 10 percent reduction in the odds of protest the following day. The half-life of the effect is between two and five days, a temporal signature that is strikingly consistent with political messaging in American politics. In China, using an instrumental variables estimation strategy, we show that by doubling the number of references to “stability” or “harmony” – widely acknowledged as codewords for threats of repression – the CCP’s propaganda apparatus halves the number of protests over the subsequent week. These estimates, we show, are robust to non-trivial violations of the exclusion restriction.
“As long as people think that the dictator’s power is secure,” Gordon Tullock wrote, “it is secure.” When citizens think otherwise, all at once, a dictator’s power is anything but, as revealed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring uprisings. This conviction – that power rests on citizens believing in it – has long compelled the world’s autocrats to invest in sophisticated propaganda apparatuses. This chapter provides an overview of the book. Drawing on the first global dataset of autocratic propaganda, we document dramatic variation in propaganda across autocracies: in coverage of the regime and opposition, narratives about domestic and international life, threats of violence issued to citizens, and the events that shape it. Why do autocrats employ different propaganda strategies? The answer, we argue, is political. Where electoral constraints compel autocrats to seek popular support, their propaganda apparatuses must persuade citizens of regime merits. Where autocrats can fully secure themselves with repression, their propaganda apparatuses aim to make this repressive capacity common knowledge among citizens to discourage mass protests.
Propaganda narratives about international affairs are analytically distinct from those about domestic conditions, since citizens know less about life abroad. This has two implications. First, without a shared sense among citizens for which claims are implausible, what constitutes absurd propaganda is unclear. Second, propaganda apparatuses are able to “get away” with more negative coverage without undermining their neutrality. As a result, propaganda narratives about international news are relatively similar across autocracies. This chapter documents two common propaganda tactics: comparison sets and selective coverage. We pair our cross-country data with case studies from Russia and China. The Russian government confronts more binding electoral constraints than the CCP, but their coverage of Western democracies is similar. The Russian propaganda apparatus often lets Donald Trump speak for it, since he vindicates claims about the collapse of the European Union, the allegiances of Crimeans, the misadventures of America’s foreign policy, and the flaws of American democracy. The CCP’s propaganda apparatus is less fond of Trump, but covers similar issues, often with sophistication.
In the absence of regular elections, the chief moments of tension are often anniversaries of failed pro-democracy movements, which routinely implicate the regime in crimes against citizens. This chapter explores a trade-off. Propaganda content intended to threaten citizens may be useful to deter protest, but draws attention to moments that the regime might prefer citizens forget. This chapter explores how the most repressive governments resolve this tension between memory and forgetting. The CCP, we find, goes to extraordinary lengths to scrub pro-democracy anniversaries from public consciousness, and so reserves propaganda spikes and threats of repression for major political events and the anniversaries of ethnic separatist movements. There is, however, one pro-democracy anniversary that the CCP knows citizens will not forget: the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. Since the Xinjiang Uprising of 2009, on each anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the CCP has used propaganda to remind Beijing’s urban class of ongoing repression against ethnic Uyghurs, millions of whom have been incarcerated. Using a survey experiment, we show that many citizens interpret this as threatening.
This chapter introduces our global dataset of autocratic propaganda, which contains over eight million articles from 65 newspapers drawn from 59 countries in six major languages. By population, our dataset encompasses a set of countries that represents 88\% of all people who live under autocracy. After collecting this propaganda, we measured its content. We employ computational techniques to identify the topics of each article; count the number of references in each article to the autocrat, ruling party, and opposition; and measure the valence of propaganda with dictionary based semantic analysis. The key idea is that some words have an intrinsic positive or negative sentiment. This conception of propaganda -- as spin, not lies -- accords with how scholars and practitioners have long understood it. As a baseline for comparison, our dataset includes state-affiliated newspapers from democracies. To scale our measures of propaganda, we develop a Fox News Index: how Fox News covers Republicans relative to Democrats.
Propaganda entails narratives: topics covered, omitted, and the account of current events that constitutes history’s first draft. This chapter focuses on domestic narratives. Three issue areas are most salient: the economy and public goods provision, politics, and sports. To capture narrative subtleties, we adapt a measure of semantic distinctiveness from computational linguistics. Where autocrats confront no electoral constraints, we find, their propaganda apparatuses trumpet their democratic credentials, yet omit the stuff of democracy, like electoral campaigns and the opposition. They cover a general, unnamed “opposition” rather than the actual opposition, which would undermine absurd claims of universal support and help citizens coordinate around protest leaders. We observe none of these tactics where autocrats confront electoral constraints, but neither do we observe them systematically denigrating their opposition rivals, since doing so would undermine credibility. Constrained autocrats acknowledge policy failures: fuel crises, vaccine shortages, and persistently high infant mortality. They acknowledge that the government has failed to adequately invest in national sports.
This Element explores the factors that lead the public to pay attention to and mobilize in support of victims of officer-involved killings. The author argues that race is the most important factor shaping both attention and mobilization. Black victims are statistically significantly more likely to trend on Google and get protested than victims of other races. Deaths of low threat Black victims are more likely to affect political interest, voter turnout, and protest rates, and only among young Black observers. This Element attributes this pattern to the fact that mobilization around officer-involved killings is responding to anti-Black discrimination, rather than general sentiments about police violence. It also finds that the local density of social justice organizations increases political mobilization.
How does protest affect political speech? Protest is an important form of political claim-making, yet our understanding of its influence on how individual legislators communicate remains limited. Our paper thus extends a theoretical framework on protests as information about voter preferences, and evaluates it using crowd-sourced protest data from the 2017–2019 Fridays for Future protests in the UK. We combine these data with ~2.4m tweets from 553 legislators over this period and text data from ~150k parliamentary speech records. We find that local protests prompted MPs to speak more about the climate, but only online. These results demonstrate that protest can shape the timing and substance of political communication by individual elected representatives. They also highlight an important difference between legislators' offline and online speech, suggesting that more work is needed to understand how political strategies differ across these arenas.
Chapter 6 analyzes firm-level patterns of collective action and finds that law-abiding firms are more likely to experience collective action for interest-based demands. Using the strike map dataset of the China Labour Bulletin, it shows that interest-based protests are less likely to invite state repression, in part because they do not target state authorities. Contrary to the assumption that those protest that ask more than the legal minimum might be more politically threatening than law-based protests, the findings in this chapter demonstrate that interest-based protests rarely breach the physical boundary of individual firms.
This chapter introduces the book’s main arguments and discusses four interrelated developments as the primary causes ofL6:L8 the resilience of the Islamic Republic. They are: the institutional makeup and legitimacy of the state; the state’s underlying and not always obvious underbelly – the so-called deep state; the dynamics that allow for the management and resolution of intra-elite tensions and conflict, even if only partially, and facilitate intra-elite circulation and rotation; and, the state as an institutional venue for and a profitable source of rent-seeking.
Chapter 4 is an examination of workers’ blame attribution, looking at when workers direct their grievances to the central government vis-`a-vis other actors. It demonstrates that migrant workers’ social grievances about limited upward mobility, income inequality, and unfairness grow as they gain experience as migrants. While atomized protests focus on economic grievances pertaining to a specific job, the empirical analyses of survey data show that social grievances pose a bigger threat to the regime, since they change the direction of blame attribution. Protest participants are less likely to blame the central government than nonparticipants, which could imply that those that blame the central government might not be interested in atomized protests.
Chapter 5 is a study of within-firm mobilization during collective action and explains why those with the resources for mobilization have weaker preferences for collective action. Due to high levels of labor turnover, the majority of the workforce lacks strong social ties in the workplace, and those who do have mobilizational resources perceive collective action to be highly costly. Collective action occurs when the workers with mobilizational resources expect a high chance of success.
Chapter 7 argues that law-abiding firms’ concerns for reputation generate discursive resources, which contribute to workers’ expectations of success. Unlike collective action for legal rights, interest-based protests rarely use disruptive tactics that physically expand the scope of conflict. Instead, workers use publicity tactics to attract the attention of third-party allies who exercise direct influence over the target firm’s policies. The main channel examined in this chapter is media exposure. It shows that workers at law-abiding firms have more discursive resources due to their firms newsworthiness and thus are more prone to expect that their protests would succeed. This shows that even in the more favorable environment for atomized protests, not all workers have the resources to engage in collective action. By limiting social mobilization, the regime has been able to manage the frequency and nature of atomized protests. At the same time, workers with the resources to engage in atomized protests are much less likely to hold the central government responsible for the situation they are in.