Theses Doctoral

The Media under Autocracy: Essays on Domestic Politics and Government Support in Russia

Syunyaev, Georgiy

A free and competitive media environment is the cornerstone of political accountability. News media provide citizens with the information necessary to assess policy performance and attribute it to the correct political actors. Many non-democratic governments attempt to manipulate citizens' beliefs about the competence and performance of political leaders by controlling the news media. In this dissertation, I investigate the extent to which this strategy is effective. I conduct a series of online experiments in Russia, a prominent modern autocracy. The three chapters of this dissertation illuminate how the public reacts to the coverage of domestic politics by state-controlled media; whether independent local media in an otherwise controlled media environment can give rise to partial accountability; and how citizens' prior experiences, knowledge, and beliefs moderate what citizens learn from the news.

Chapter 1 studies a kind of coverage produced by many state-owned media: messages that target citizens’ perceptions of whether the central or the local government is responsible for policy outcomes. I report results from a survey experiment with over 4,000 respondents in Russia. The experiment randomly assigned respondents to watch news reports from Russia’s popular state-owned TV channel, Rossia-1. The reports emphasize the central government’s monitoring of road maintenance and natural disaster management – two policies that fall under the purview of local governments. My findings suggest that even though the reports did not shift beliefs about the locus of policy responsibility, they improved policy performance perceptions and increased government support. One explanation for these findings is that citizens know that the central government would only associate itself with local policies if the performance is high. I show that my findings are consistent with a Bayesian learning model in which citizens can be aware of biased media reporting strategy and update positively on policy performance and government competence when they observe central government associating itself with the policy. The broader implication is that propaganda can be effective not despite, but because citizens know that news outlets are controlled by the government.

In Chapter 2, I focus on the effects of independent news outlets in an otherwise controlled media environment. Existing empirical evidence suggests that such news outlets can decrease support for the government, encourage collective action and ultimately lead to regime change. In this chapter, I show that the information provided by media outlets that are not controlled by the government can have limited effects on citizens' beliefs. I rely on data from an experiment conducted in one of the largest cities in Russia, Novosibirsk. I show residents pre-recorded local news reports on one of the most salient policy issues, healthcare delivery. Despite high compliance rates, the effects of exposure to local independent media reports are limited. I also find no evidence for treatment effect heterogeneity across a number of dimensions. Overall, these findings cast doubt on the ability of independent local media to bring about partial accountability.

Chapter 3 investigates another type of coverage that is common in state-controlled media environments: messages that attribute successes in macroeconomic policy to an authoritarian leader. I propose a simple model of belief-updating in which citizens are simultaneously uncertain about the government's competence and the bias of the media source. Since macroeconomic performance is difficult to observe for citizens, the model in this chapter allows the media outlet to lie about government competence. The model makes predictions about the types of citizens who are most and least susceptible to being persuaded. I derive hypotheses about the effects of propaganda on citizens’ beliefs about government competence and media bias. To test the model's predictions, I design and implement an online panel experiment that uses news reports from the leading state-owned TV channel in Russia. Contrary to the model's predictions, I find that positive policy events presented by biased media can backfire and lead citizens to worsen their perception of policy performance and government competence.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Frye, Timothy M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 20, 2022