Ala' Alrababa'h - Diversionary Discourse: Media and Authoritarian Survival in the Middle East

Mon, Feb 8 2021, 11:30am - 12:30pm

The 2011 uprisings in the Arab world resulted in more brutal and repressive dictatorships in several countries. How have these regimes maintained their hold onto power? Much of the traditional literature on authoritarian durability in the Middle East has focused on strategies related to repression and co-optation. In this project, I propose an original theory for how autocrats manipulate media. I argue that when domestic dissatisfaction with the regimes increases, regimes resort to manipulating the discourse around security threats with the aim of dissuading the public from taking part in protests. Manipulating security threats reduces dissent by emphasizing urgent threats from an out-group, blaming foreign powers for domestic failures, and showing the regime as the sole protector of the public. I test this theory using a quantitative analysis of hundreds of thousands of articles from Egyptian, Bahraini, and Syrian newspapers. In addition, I conduct a qualitative case study of coverage in Egyptian regime media of two instances of threats unrelated to Egypt: the London 7/7 attacks and the Paris 2014 attacks. The Paris attacks occurred during protests in Egypt, while there was no major upheaval in Egypt during the London attacks, which allows for examining the effect of protests on regime coverage of these attacks. This project contributes to the literature on autocratic media and autocratic responses to the Arab uprisings.


Ala’ Alrababa’h is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University. His primary research is in comparative politics and international relations with a focus on authoritarian media, political violence, and migration and refugees. His research combines fieldwork, matching learning and text-as-data methods, and causal inference.