APSA 2017 San Francisco

Event date: 
Wednesday, August 30, 2017 - 22:00

APSA 2017 Panel Proposed: The Political Economy and Effectiveness of Modern Authoritarian Propaganda

Division 13: Politics of Communist and Former Communist Countries

Division 38: Political Communication

Title: How Manipulating Economic News Shapes Government Reputation: Evidence from Russia's State Controlled Media

Author: Arturas Rozenas, NYU

Abstract: It is commonly believed that autocratic governments have an incentive to censor negative news and amplify positive news. Using a simple formal model, I argue that such simplistic censoring may have only a very limited effect when people can easily benchmark the official news against their own subjective perceptions. Such mechanism most clearly applies in the domain of economic news because personal economic welfare provides a clear benchmark against which the official news can be evaluated. In such instances, the state controlled media does not engage in outright censoring but instead manipulates the responsibility assignment for the negative and positive events. Using a large corpus of daily news reports from three national television channels in Russia from 2000 to 2016, I identify three patterns that are consistent with this theoretical insight: First, the Russian media reports negative economic news at about the same rate as the positive ones. Second, when news are negative, they are increasingly likely to implicate external factors, and when the news are positive they are increasingly likely to implicate the domestic government. Third, the state propaganda is most effective in swaying the public opinion when the state of the economy is objectively good.

Title: The Hybrid War of Information 

Authors: Nikolay Marinov and Harald Schoen, University of Mannheim 

Abstract: Russia has leveled a sophisticated campaign of disinformation against domestic publics in the liberal West. In this project, we conceptualize the aims, methods and power of the messages projected by the Kremlin. We argue that Russian information sources seeks to sway public opinion on issues of concern to Russian elites by projecting messages on those issues, most directly. Indirectly, Russian strategy seeks to change discourses in the West by attacking politicians who oppose the Russian position, by undermining trust in Western institutions, and by blurring the lines between facts and fiction. We deploy a series of survey experiments to test the convincing power of Russian spin on the German public. We find that pro-Russian narratives influence opinions on specific issues, such as Ukraine or NATO exercises, but are weak when it comes to undermining trust in democratic or multilateral institutions. We do not find any evidence that religious, cultural or authoritarian personality traits mediate the effect of propaganda. By contrast, beliefs in conspiracy theory and overall political knowledge play a strong conditioning role in whether a narrative has power. The worrisome aspect of these findings is the prospect of further polarization of public views, in response to propaganda, based on an individual’s position on the conspiracy/knowledge scale. We discuss further steps and policy implications.

Title: Censorship and the Effectiveness of Propaganda

Author: Carlo Horz

Abstract: Scholarship on propaganda generally assumes that propaganda is more effective when the propagandist enjoys a monopoly over communication, i.e., when there is effective censorship. However, this may not always be true: if an audience knows that a regime is censoring alternative views, it may be more suspicious of regime statements. By contrast, an audience with access to outside information may expect the regime to be constrained and therefore expend less effort scrutinizing the regime's claims. To elucidate the relationship between propaganda and censorship, I build a game-theoretic model in which an audience member must choose how much costly effort to expend in assessing regime statements by proposing alternative explanations for a given phenomenon. I derive the conditions under which censorship helps, and those under which it hurts propaganda. I discuss the results in reference to various empirical cases.

Title: The Pathology of Propaganda

Author: Haifeng Huang, UC Merced

Abstract: Is propaganda effective in sustaining authoritarian rule? The previous literature has found that propaganda often does not change citizens' actual opinion of the government, but can signal the regime's power and capacity of control. This study hypothesizes that many propaganda messages are so pretentious and “nauseating” that, although they can signal the regime's power, in terms of the public's hearts and minds they can actually backfire and worsen citizens' opinion and support of the regime. The ongoing propaganda campaign and cult of personality in China provides an excellent opportunity to test this hypothesis. Preliminary results from a survey experiment show that citizens exposed to heavy-handed propaganda messages report lower levels of satisfaction with China's current situations, higher interesting in moving abroad, and sometimes even lower level of support for the anti-corruption campaign. such messages also make people dislike propaganda more, but at the same time, reduce their willingness to participate in protests. Thus, the short term benefit of demonstrating the government's power through propaganda may come at a cost of a long term decay of government legitimacy. Hence the pathology of propaganda.

Title: How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument

Authors: Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E. Roberts

Abstract: The Chinese government has long been suspected of hiring as many as 2,000,000 people to surreptitiously insert huge numbers of pseudonymous and other deceptive writings into the stream of real social media posts, as if they were the genuine opinions of ordinary people. Many academics, and most journalists and activists, claim that these so-called "50c party" posts vociferously argue for the government’s side in political and policy debates. As we show, this is also true of the vast majority of posts openly accused on social media of being 50c. Yet, almost no systematic empirical evidence exists for this claim, or, more importantly, for the Chinese regime’s strategic objective in pursuing this activity. In the first large scale empirical analysis of this operation, we show how to identify the secretive authors of these posts, the posts written by them, and their content. We estimate that the government fabricates and posts about 448 million social media comments a year. In contrast to prior claims, we show that the Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime. We discuss how these results fit with what is known about the Chinese censorship program, and suggest how they may change our broader theoretical understanding of "common knowledge" and information control in authoritarian regimes.

Discussant: Andrew Little, Cornell