Ala' Alrababa'h - Manufacturing Threats: Media Manipulation and Authoritarian Survival

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

The 2011 uprisings in the Arab world were followed by more brutal and repressive dictatorships in several countries. How have these regimes maintained their power? While much of the literature on authoritarian durability in the Middle East focuses on repression and co-optation, this project suggests that regimes can manipulate media narratives to dissuade people from dissenting. Specifically, it argues that narratives about threats and conspiracies can introduce uncertainty about regime incompetence and may shape public beliefs about the likelihood that others dissent. By doing so, media manipulation can reduce dissent even without fully persuading the public. This article uses data from Egyptian and Syrian media to build time series of protests and narratives about threats, showing that protests are often followed by narratives about conspiracies and threats. Utilizing the fact that Fridays served as a focal day for protests, this paper also shows that the Syrian regime was more likely to discuss narratives about threats on Saturdays. Finally, the paper shows that regimes do not use these narratives only to describe protesters as foreign agents. Instead, regime media discuss conspiracies and plots to divert public attention and dissuade them from joining protests. 


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.