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Message or Messenger? Source and Labeling Effects in Authoritarian Response to Protest

Posted on 2023-04-07 - 00:12

Authoritarian regimes in the 21st century have increasingly turned to using information control rather than kinetic force to respond to threats to their rule. This paper studies an often overlooked type of information control: strategic labeling and public statements by regime sources in response to protests. Labeling protesters as violent criminals may increase support for repression by signaling that protests are illegitimate and deviant. Regime sources, compared to more independent sources, could increase support for repression even more when paired with such an accusatory label. Accommodative labels should have opposing effects—decreasing support for repression. The argument is tested with a survey experiment in China which labels environmental protests. Accusatory labels increase support for repression of protests. Regime sources, meanwhile, have no advantage over non-governmental sources in shifting opinion. The findings suggest that negative labels de-legitimize protesters and legitimize repression while the sources matter less in this contentious authoritarian context.

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