As part of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law’s Fall 2023 Research Seminar series, University of Southern California Political Scientists, Hoover Fellows, and CDDRL affiliated scholars Erin Baggot Carter and Brett Carter presented findings from their latest book Propaganda in Autocracies: Institutions, Information, and the Politics of Belief (Cambridge University Press, 2023). The book offers unique insight into how and why autocratic regimes use propaganda.
Under authoritarian regimes with “non-binding electoral constraints,” the authors explained, the goal of propaganda is to intimidate citizens and convey the idea that the regime can survive without their support. Propaganda in this context also makes the consequences of dissent common knowledge, thereby saving the regime the cost of actual repression.
As for regimes with binding electoral constraints, their use of propaganda is often aimed at creating a semblance of credibility with a view to enhancing the functioning of future messaging. This involves mixing fact and fiction by exploiting the infrequent provision of public goods and occasionally conceding policy failures. The latter can sometimes prove damaging to the regime since it may contribute to future protests and unrest.
The data compiled and analyzed by the Carters in this book constitute the world’s largest dataset on propaganda in autocracies, comprising 80 newspapers from 70 countries. Based on extensive coding and computational linguistics techniques, the authors used the coverage of about 8 million articles to build several measures of pro-regime propaganda.
Propaganda in Autocracies is full of novel findings on how repressive governments approach propaganda. For example, the book challenges conventional wisdom that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda is actually persuasive to its citizens. Using an innovative list experiment, they found no evidence that citizens’ beliefs were swayed by propaganda, although exposure to propaganda can reduce people’s propensity to protest by cueing fear.
By analyzing propaganda trends over time, the book brings to light the CCP’s strategies of control during anniversaries of pro-democracy events. For most such anniversaries, regime propaganda remained the same. Yet, for salient anniversaries, like that of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the regime propped up its propaganda messaging. The authors found that repression against the ethnic Uygurs is often more heavily broadcasted, possibly to showcase the regime’s repressive power.