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Choosing Propaganda: Media Selection and Politics in Putin's Russia


The vast majority of Russians depend on state-controlled media as their primary source of information about politics and current events. These news outlets deliberately bias their reports to flatter the country's political leaders. They spread pro-Kremlin propaganda and suppress critical coverage of the regime. Given this distortion, what explains the popularity of these sources? In this dissertation, I draw on evidence from three original surveys about Russian media habits, attitudes toward news media, and political beliefs to examine demand for news in Russia. These reveal the complex ways in which Russians process social and political information. Preferences for different types of content, beliefs about sources, and differences in accessibility interact to shape their viewing choices.

The results of this dissertation suggest that most Russians are aware, at least to some degree, of the biases of state media. Nonetheless, they still consider these sources to provide valuable information. This, in part, stems from beliefs about the access these news outlets have to information and some distrust in available alternative sources. It is not the case that Russians are generally active supporters of the kinds of censorship that state news outlets deploy. However, concerns about censorship must be traded off against news consumers' other priorities. In some circumstances, news audiences will even prefer a degree of censorship if information is framed as a threat to social stability. Overall, state news outlets have succeeded in producing a product that many Russian news consumers genuinely value, even if the contents are subject to bias and distortion. Russian news audiences find the content of state media to be interesting, important, and relevant. It encourages positive emotions such as pride and hope. It affirms those who are deeply attached to their Russian identity and feel positively about their leaders.

The results of this dissertation have important implications for understanding the way modern authoritarian regimes stay in power. It is easier for autocrats to stay in power if they are genuinely popular, and information control and propaganda can be important tools for turning public opinion in the autocrat's favor. When propaganda is genuinely popular, it can be far more useful as a persuasive tool. Maintaining total control over the flow of information is extremely difficult and attempts to do so can backfire. However, if people willingly consume state media, the state can reap the benefits of shaping public opinion without all of the associated costs.

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