A Double-Edge Sword? Mass Media and Nonviolent Dissent in Autocracies

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 224238
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221080921
A Double-Edge Sword? Mass Media and
Nonviolent Dissent in Autocracies
Kristian Skrede Gleditsch
, Mart´
ın Mac´
, and
Mauricio Rivera
It is often assumed that nondemocratic regimes will control mass media and suppress independent information, but in
many autocracies the media are partially free and imperfectly controlled. We argue that partial media freedom can
increase the prospects for mass nonviolent dissent. We develop a theory emphasizing how even less than perfectly free
media outlets can increase the ability of individuals to coordinate and mobilize, and provide an informational endowment
that can help non-state actors overcome collective mobilization barriers. We further argue that this informational
endowment amplif‌ies the effect of other inf‌luences spurring mass protests in autocracies, in particular protest contagion
and elections. We f‌ind empirical support for our argument in an analysis of all autocracies between 1955 and 2013. A case
study of the Georgian Rose revolution provides further support for the postulated mechanisms.
autocracies, media freedom, protest, dissent, collective action
Government respect for media freedom is a hallmark of
democracy, and access to independent information allows
citizens to hold a government to account. Much research
assumes that non-democracies will suppress or control
mass media to prevent any information that may promote
populargrievances and anti-regime mobilization(e.g., Dahl
1989;Linz and Stepan 1996;Poe and Tate 1994). But
although some autocracies such as Cuba and North Korea
f‌it this popular image, many non-democracies have a more
varied and less directly controlled media landscape. As
Egorov, Guriev, and Sonin (2009, 646) put it, there is
much variation in media freedom even among dictatorial
regimes,and many dictatorships have partially free
media(see also Whitten-Woodring 2009;Stier 2015).
Existing research highlights how dictators may allow
partially free media as this can help increase control over
the bureaucracy, improve governance, or to help legiti-
mate the regime (e.g., Egorov, Guriev, and Sonin 2009;
ODonnell and Schmitter 1986). We shift attention to the
effects of mass media by arguing that printed/broadcast
media outlets are a double-edged sword, and partially free
media can facilitate mass dissent in autocracies. Our point
of departure is that collective action is diff‌icult in au-
tocracies due to the lack of information about the nature
and capacity of the incumbent regime, the strength of the
opposition, and the feasibility of different mobilization
strategies. Partial media freedom provides a coordination
good, enhancing the ability of dissidents to organize and
overcome collective action barriers. We further argue that
the informational advantage that potential dissidents have
under even imperfectly free media can play an important
role in amplifying the effect of other factors that make
mass dissent more likely, in particular protest contagion
and the mobilizing effects of elections.
Weexamine data for all autocraciesover the 19552013
Our analysis showsthat mass nonviolent dissent is
more likely in countries with more media freedom and
where there are alternative sources of information, com-
pared to regimes where no independent media exist. We
also f‌ind that partial media freedom amplif‌ies the effect of
protest contagion, although we fail to f‌ind evidence that
Department of Government, University of Essex & Peace Research
Institute Oslo, Colchester, UK
Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI,
Peace Research Institute Oslo, Oslo, Norway
Corresponding Author:
Mauricio Rivera, Conditions of Violence and Peace, Peace Research
Institute Oslo, PO Box 9229, Grønland, Oslo, NO 0134, Norway.
Email: mauriv@prio.org

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