Propaganda, Alternative Media, and Accountability in Fragile Democracies

Propaganda, Alternative Media, and Accountability in Fragile Democracies

By Anqi Li, Davin Raiha, Ken Shotts
March 2020Working Paper No. 3832

We develop a model of electoral accountability with mainstream and alternative media. In addition to regular high- and low-competence types, the incumbent may be an aspiring autocrat who controls the mainstream media and will subvert democracy if retained in office. A truthful alternative media can help voters identify and remove these subversive types while re-electing competent leaders. A malicious alternative media, in contrast, spreads false accusations about the incumbent and demotivates policy effort. If the alternative media is very likely be malicious and hence is unreliable, voters ignore it and use only the mainstream media to hold regular incumbents accountable, leaving aspiring autocrats to win re-election via propaganda that portrays them as effective policymakers. When the alternative media’s reliability is intermediate, voters heed its warnings about subversive incumbents, but the prospect of being falsely accused demotivates effort by regular incumbents and electoral accountability breaks down.

Keywords
electoral accountability; media; propaganda; conspiracy theories; democratic backsliding; autocracy