Propaganda, Conspiracy Theories, and Accountability in Fragile Democracies

Propaganda, Conspiracy Theories, and Accountability in Fragile Democracies

By Anqi Li, Davin Raiha, Ken Shotts
October 2019Working Paper No. 3832

We develop a model of electoral accountability in the presence of mainstream and alternative media outlets. In addition to standard high and low competence types, the incumbent may be an aspiring autocrat, who controls the mainstream media and will cause substantial harm if not removed from office. Alternative media can help voters identify and remove aspiring autocrats and can enable voters to focus on honest mainstream media assessments of incumbents’ competence. But malicious alternative media that peddle false conspiracy theories about the incumbent and the mainstream media can induce voters to mistakenly remove nonautocratic incumbents, which in turn demotivates incumbent effort and undermines accountability. The alternative media is most beneficial when it is honest and known to be honest. It is most dangerous when it is sufficiently credible that voters pay attention to it, but sufficiently likely to be malicious that it undermines accountability.

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