A blog post about my main findings here
Research on propaganda and censorship often focuses on strategies that autocrats can use to persuade skeptical citizens. I argue that this focus overestimates the role of persuasion in authoritarian rule, and I describe a different strategy that popular autocrats can use---affirmation propaganda---that builds credibility by speaking to citizens' existing views. Affirmation propaganda results in more positive perceptions of propaganda outlets and in skepticism about independent media. I test this argument using three studies in Russia. In two randomized experiments, I demonstrate that pro-regime citizens trust reports from state media more than reports from independent media. Additional survey evidence suggests that regime supporters deny disinformation and censorship by propaganda outlets despite often recognizing the pro-government bias of these outlets. One implication of this analysis is that independent media pose less of a challenge to authoritarian rule than previously thought. I also discuss the limitations of affirmation propaganda.
Research on autocracies often posits that propaganda can manipulate citizens' beliefs, but existing work does not systematically investigate how well individuals recognize misinformation in authoritarian environments and whether susceptibility to propaganda is related to vulnerability to false news. I present the results of four surveys in Russia, in which more than 60,000 participants evaluated 74 true and false news headlines. I find that Russians' capacity to discern falsehoods is comparable to discernment found in other political contexts, and they could often detect false news stories. However, consumers of state media gave less accurate evaluations than consumers of independent media, and government supporters were substantially more susceptible to pro-regime misinformation than opposition-minded citizens. Supporters also strongly rejected true messages inconsistent with their political dispositions. These results help understand why in environments dominated by propaganda individuals can be quite vulnerable to information manipulation. At the same time, regime critics in my study often fell for propaganda-inconsistent falsehoods. These results highlight the broader challenge of fighting misinformation and propaganda in a situation when many citizens exhibit political biases.
Is Postcommunism Over? What Is and Is Not Distinctive About Eastern Europe and Eurasia Three Decades After Communism (With Dmitrii Kofanov and Yoshiko M. Herrera)
The meaning and distinctiveness of the postcommunist region has been hotly debated since the end of the Cold War. We return to the question posed by regional scholars just after the end of the USSR and in the intervening years, and ask how similar are the 28 post-communist countries to each other anymore, and how different are they from other countries? In other words, is postcommunism over? If not, what variables distinguish the postcommunist region, and what is captured by a post-communist regional dummy variable? We find limited evidence that postcommunist countries are distinct from the rest of the world in terms of demographic, economic, political, social, and value-based dimensions or that they coherently group together, and what had distinguished them has lessened over time. This analysis provides a more systematic understanding of the heterogeneity of postcommunist countries, and we discuss four key implications for social science and regional research.
Why Is Media Trust Low in Post-Communist Countries?
Do long-term propaganda and indoctrination undermine media trust? I examine whether trust in media in post-communist countries can be explained by citizens' past communist experiences or by the quality of contemporaneous institutions. Building on studies of post-communist legacies, I develop a set of observable implications that allow to distinguish between these two possibilities. I find that trust in media is on average lower in post-communist countries than in the rest of the world. However, this trust deficit is more likely a consequence of the post-communist period than an effect of past exposure to communism. The deficit is driven by authoritarian post-communist regimes, and there is no such deficit among democracies, which suggests that contemporaneous political experiences matter more. Moreover, young citizens in the post-communist countries are still more skeptical about the media than their peers in the rest of the world, whereas citizens with longer exposure to communism have, in fact, more positive perceptions of media. Finally, the post-communist trust deficit appears to have grown over time, as the communist past became more distant. These findings have implications for the development of media and political institutions in the post-communist world and in former authoritarian countries.
Work in Progress
Learning About Bias: An Experiment on News Consumption in Russia (With Georgiy Syunyaev)
Most media that people consume exhibit certain political biases or slants. However, many citizens either do not understand or underestimate the slant of the media they consume. This study proposes a new experimental design to investigate whether making media slant more evident affects how citizens perceive news coverage and update their political beliefs. Our experimental intervention fielded on an online survey platform in Russia exposes respondents to a substantial amount of news coverage by major pro-government and independent television channels and, at the same time, makes respondents more attentive to the slant of news reporting. Our panel design allows us to examine the subsequent impact of the intervention on respondents’ perceptions of media, willingness to consume particular media outlets, and evaluations of the economy and government performance.
Trust Building Across Identity Groups: An Experiment in Kazakhstan (With Yoshiko Herrera and Andrew Kydd)
Mistrust is a common cause of conflict between individuals belonging to different identity groups. When can such mistrust be overcome? We study this question using an experiment based on a trust game between members of different social identity groups. In particular, we study the effect of hearing about positive interactions across group lines on the willingness of individuals to take a chance on cooperating with outgroup members. We field the experiment in Kazakhstan, focusing on relations between Kazakhs and Russians.
The Effects of Social Media Censorship on Polarization (With Yoshiko Herrera, Mingcong Pan, and Yiming Wang)
Political polarization is a pressing problem around the world and social media have come under scrutiny for their possible role in facilitating it. In democracies, some companies or governments restrict online expression or block access to certain platforms. In autocracies, digital restrictions are used widely to stem oppositional activity, often under the pretense of fighting extremism. But do digital restrictions reduce polarization, or do they exacerbate it? Existing work suggests both possible outcomes. We examine the effects of digital restrictions via a series of online survey experiments in the U.S., China, and other countries, focusing on how a threat of social media restrictions affects citizens' social identities, political polarization, and online behavior.
Is Trust in Media Decreasing? Evidence from the World Values Survey
Scholars and observers are increasingly concerned that confidence in mainstream media is decreasing, which could undermine the democratic political process and make citizens more vulnerable to manipulation. Various surveys have documented dwindling confidence in media in the U.S. and other democracies, but so far this research has not established whether this decline is a global trend. I suggest a more robust approach using data from the World Values Survey to establish worldwide trends in attitudes. The resulting analysis shows there has been some decline in confidence in media since the early 1990s, but there is no evidence of a decline among stable democracies. Confidence in media has been decreasing instead in democratizing countries and other states that have undergone substantial political changes.
A Model of Censorship, Propaganda, and Repression (With Scott Gehlbach, Zhaotian Luo, and Dmitriy Vorobyev)
A fundamental constraint of information design is that propaganda must be believed to be effective. The presence of outside information tightens this constraint. We extend the canonical two-state, two-action of Bayesian persuasion to endogenize the presence of such information. The sender (government) chooses both the precision of an outside signal—it chooses a level of censorship—and a probability distribution over propaganda messages, where the distribution can be conditioned on the outside signal. The government bears an opportunity cost of censorship, in that the government relies on outside information to decide whether to repress rather than persuade. In equilibrium, the government may employ censorship and propaganda alongside repression; many combinations of propaganda and censorship may be behaviorally equivalent. Under plausible additional assumptions, we predict a positive correlation between censorship and propaganda that is decreasing in the cost of repression.