Fake News for All: How Citizens Discern Disinformation in Autocracies
61 Pages Posted: 18 Oct 2021 Last revised: 1 Feb 2023
Date Written: January 31, 2023
Research on autocracies often posits that propaganda can manipulate citizens' beliefs, but existing work does not systematically investigate how well individuals recognize misinformation in authoritarian environments and whether susceptibility to propaganda is related to vulnerability to false news. I present the results of four surveys in Russia, in which more than 60,000 participants evaluated 74 true and false news headlines. I find that Russians' capacity to discern falsehoods is comparable to discernment found in other political contexts, and they could often detect false news stories. However, consumers of state media gave less accurate evaluations than consumers of independent media, and government supporters were substantially more susceptible to pro-regime misinformation than opposition-minded citizens. Supporters also strongly rejected true messages inconsistent with their political dispositions. These results help us understand why in environments dominated by propaganda individuals can be quite vulnerable to information manipulation. At the same time, regime critics in my study often fell for propaganda-inconsistent falsehoods. These results highlight the broader challenge of fighting misinformation and propaganda in a situation when many citizens exhibit political biases.
Keywords: misinformation, propaganda, autocracy, Russia
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