AJPS Author Summary: Electoral Effects of Biased Media

Author Summary by Leonid Peisakhin and Arturas Rozenas

Their article titled “Electoral Effects of Biased Media: Russian Television in Ukraine” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Author Summary - Electoral Effects of Biased Media

There is a great deal of interest in the political effects of biased media. Observers in the U.S. and Europe worry that exposure to biased media, foreign or domestic, might have a substantial and wide-ranging impact on politics, including on voting results. Critics respond that media with a conspicuous bias is largely ineffective and might even backfire against the source. Furthermore, the understanding of mechanisms by which biased media might affect its audience remains incomplete: we are not sure whether biased messages mobilize their target audience without affecting their beliefs or whether these messages change consumers’ attitudes.

In this paper, we explore the effectiveness of biased media in the context of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.  The Russian government has made headlines in recent years for strategic use of politically biased messaging purportedly to change electoral outcomes in the U.S. and Europe. In the context of Ukraine, we make use of the fact that Russian analog television signal spills over into Ukraine along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Because of variation in geographic features, some Ukrainian settlements in the vicinity of the Russian border receive high-quality Russian analog signal, whereas neighboring settlements do not receive Russian television at all. As a result, some Ukrainians have ready access to Russian messaging on political events in Ukraine, whereas their neighbors do not. We study the impact of the potential availability of Russian television on voting behavior in Ukraine’s 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections, which took place shortly after president Yanukovych abandoned office, Russia annexed Crimea, and while the Russia-backed separatist conflict was brewing in eastern Ukraine. To enhance the validity of the findings we make use of both precinct-level electoral returns and individual-level data on patterns of television consumption, political attitudes, and voting behavior.

We find that the effect of exposure to Russian media is highly heterogeneous. Voters who are already predisposed toward Russian messaging—measured as support for pro-Russian candidates in the past—are more likely to be swayed by biased messages. Those who are a priori negatively predisposed toward Russia are either not affected by biased messaging or are altogether dissuaded by it. On balance, because the area under study historically supports pro-Russian candidates, exposure to Russian media messaging there results in higher aggregate support for politicians who are in opposition to Ukraine’s current government. This effect holds both at the level of precincts and individual voters. Notably, we use survey data to demonstrate that Russian media changes attitudes and does not just have a superficial mobilizing effect.

On balance, our finding suggests an important corrective to current debates on the effectiveness of biased media. The same biased source affects different individuals differently: those predisposed toward the source are persuaded by it, but those opposed to the source are either not affected or dissuaded. In the aggregate, exposure to biased media brings about greater political polarization as individuals with different priors move further to the ideological extremes. Therefore, in assessing the potential impact of biased media we must take stock of the distribution of political preferences in the affected population.

About the Authors: Leonid Peisakhin as Assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University—Abu Dhabi. Arturas Rozenas is Assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University. Their article titled “Electoral Effects of Biased Media: Russian Television in Ukraine” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.










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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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