Research / BFI Working PaperJul 15, 2023

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

Natalia Lamberova, Konstantin Sonin

Were COVID-19 and the associated restrictions used by authoritarian governments to tighten their grip on power? Using data from 83 Russian regions, we show that information manipulation and political repression were influenced by the strength of the local civil society and institutions. Repression comple-mented propaganda: more politically motivated arrests were associated with an increase in information manipulation. Repression waves that followed the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader, in August 2020 and his arrest in January 2021 were more pronounced in those regions that manipulated COVID-19 statistics more. The increase of authoritarian control came at a price: misinformation reduced compliance with the pandemic restrictions. In addition to two-way fixed effects and IV, we use sensitivity analysis to account for possible omitted variables. Our findings confirm, both theoretically and empirically, the complementarity between propaganda and repression as instruments of authoritarian control.

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