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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.