Censorship and the Impact of Repression on Dissent

The forthcoming article “Censorship and the Impact of Repression on Dissent” by Grigore Pop–Eleches and Lucan A. Way is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Authoritarian repression can suppress dissent. But it can also backfire and lead to greater opposition. Studies of repression and opposition have yielded contradictory results. On the one hand, some research suggests that coercive measures reduce popular resistance.  Violence may even enhance incumbent popularity when opposition is viewed as a threat. At the same time, other research indicates that repression creates backlash and more opposition. Attacks on opposition often violate community norms and create additional grievances and outrage against the government.     

This article provides one explanation for these divergent findings. We argue that the impact of repression hinges on the degree of censorship. Where alternative media is present, violence is more likely to increase support for opposition; where it is absent, repression has a greater probability of quashing dissent. The availability of alternative sources of information increases the population’s exposure to information that portrays government actions in a bad light. In such cases, violence is more likely to generate backlash. By contrast, effective censorship limits the spread of information about violence and makes it easier for governments to stigmatize opposition.  In such cases, repression will be less likely to backfire against and may even enhance support for the incumbent. 

We test and confirm these expectations with an original dataset that combines the results of a panel survey that spanned the authoritarian repression of electoral protests in Moldova in 2009 and geo-coded data on the subnational variation in repression and alternative information availability. Citizens with access to independent television responded to the repression of protesters by disproportionately rejecting the government interpretation of events, supporting opposition candidates, and expressing a slightly higher willingness to engage in electoral protest. By contrast, in parts of the country lacking access to independent TV, attacks on opposition failed to generate backlash, and in fact enhanced support for the government. In such areas, repression was associated with greater adherence to the government framing of the crisis, greater electoral support for the ruling party, and lower willingness to engage in protests.  The hypothesized interaction between repression and censorship is corroborated in cross-national analysis of repression, censorship and government support. Survey evidence from 134 countries over more than a decade (2004-2016) to suggests that the impact of repression on popular support for the incumbents is moderated by the degree of alternative information availability.  

Our findings suggest that repression is particularly risky for autocrats in more open media environments (as in Ukraine in 2013-14). In such cases, violence is likely to rebound to the advantage of the opposition, rather than keep the incumbent in power. By contrast repression has a greater chance of suppressing protest in countries with greater information control (such as China in 1989, Belarus in 2006; Iran in 2009; and Russia in 2011).  

 About the Author(s): Grigore Pop–Eleches is Professor, Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and Lucan A. Way is Professor, Political Science at University of Toronto. Their research “Censorship and the Impact of Repression on Dissent” 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.