McGowan MG100
McGowan Building
411 Pacific St
Monterey, CA 93940
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The management of public opinion is broadly understood as key to the ability of contemporary authoritarian leaders to maintain their power. Thus, autocrats are increasingly seen to prefer a strategy of persuasion to outright coercion, and a burgeoning literature on ‘informational autocracy’ has shed considerable light on the tools available to authoritarian regimes seeking to ensure that their messages and messengers win out. Less is known, however, about how citizens of authoritarian regimes respond to the restrictions placed by leaders on their ability to consume news. This paper addresses this question by delving into the cases of Belarus and Russia, where authorities have deployed a range of tactics: hounding and marginalizing some media outlets, coopting others, and outright shuttering still others. Drawing on a series of original media audience surveys – in Belarus in 2020 and 2021, and in Russia in 2019, 2020 and 2021 – the paper shows news consumers making context-specific decisions about how to cope with top-down information control, navigating the remaining media landscape and relying heavily on cues from their social circles. Further, the evidence suggests that autocrats are most effective at promoting pro-regime news consumption when their interventions are least heavy handed.

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Jarlath McGuckin