Research / BFI Working PaperJul 27, 2022

Information Manipulation and Repression: A Theory and Evidence from the COVID Response in Russia

Natalia Lamberova, Konstantin Sonin

Restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic were decried as an assault on individual freedoms, but were they, actually? In an authoritarian regime, yes. Using data from 83 Russian regions and the two-way fixed-effects design, we show that the extent of information manipulation measured by the difference between the excess mortality and the reported COVID-19 deaths, and repression such as arrests and detentions for violating lockdown rules were influenced by the strength of the local civil society and the opposition share in local parliaments. The tactics came at a price: the misinformation did reduce the compliance. These findings provide new evidence that authoritarian regimes, which might seem to be well-equipped to implement restrictive measures, are actually ill-suited to deal with public health challenges. Also, our results show that repression complements propaganda: more arrests increases the extent of information manipulation.

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