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“Why Smearing Works? Autocrats’ Use of Negative Narratives to Deter Support for Social Protests” by Mai Truong and Minh Trinh

October 14, 2020 @ 9:00 am - 10:00 am

Authors: Mai Truong (University of Arizona) & Minh Trinh (MIT)

Abstract: When dealing with social protests, autocrats have more options than violent repression, which are both costly and risky. Instead, many autocrats have chosen to respond to unfolding protests with public smearing, in which they construct and disseminate media narratives that attach negative labels to the protesters, referring to them as “extremists,” “social disrupters” or “grassroots mobs.” Despite the salience of this strategy, it has been critically understudied in the literature on collective action in authoritarian regimes. We seek to explore the impacts of the smearing strategy on public support for protesters. Using a unique online survey experiment in Vietnam that allows us to measure both the effect of smearing on public opinion and the causal mechanism through which it operates, we contend that smearing narratives indeed deter public support for social protests, and do so because they either increase fear of repression among citizens or reduce empathy towards protesters. Our findings have important implications in an era in which authoritarian regimes are faced with increasing grassroots collective action, and yet still seem relatively resilient in the face of such public resistance.

Discussants: TBD.

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