How do autocrats manipulate the beliefs of their citizens during political crises? We argue that they cultivate a reputation for neutrality so that, during moments of crisis, their pro-regime arguments have some measure of credibility. To test the argument, we employ a corpus of 24 state-affiliated newspapers from Africa and Asia. Using a differences-in-differences estimation strategy, we find that propaganda in autocracies is generally indistinguishable from state-affiliated newspapers in democracies, save for the 15 days prior to an election, when positive coverage of the autocrat and the ruling party triples. This increase, we show, is driven not by more effusive articles, but an increase in the share of articles about the regime. Consequently, the aggregate volume of pro-regime coverage increases, but per article positive coverage does not. We find no evidence that autocrats employ propaganda to issue threats of repression during election seasons, and that their propaganda apparatuses generally avoid defaming the opposition. State-affiliated newspapers in democracies -- much like their autocratic counterparts outside of election seasons -- exhibit generally neutral coverage.
Dr. Brett Carter is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California and co-PI of the Lab on Non-Democratic Politics. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. He was previously a fellow at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, as well as the Hoover Institution. His research focuses on autocratic politics in the Information Age. He is currently working on three book projects: one on autocratic survival in Post-Cold War Africa, one on autocratic propaganda, and one that exploits the Foreign Agents Registration Act to explore the role of autocratic money in American politics.