Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Free Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes
A common claim in the democratization literature is that foreign free media undermine authoritarian rule. No reliable micro-level evidence on this topic exists, however, since independent survey research is rarely possible in authoritarian regimes and self-selection into media consumption complicates causal inferences. In this case study of the impact of West German television on political attitudes in communist East Germany, we address these problems by making use of previously secret survey data and a natural experiment. While most East Germans were able to tune in to West German broadcasts, some of them were cut off from West German television due to East Germany's topography. We exploit this plausibly exogenous variation to estimate the impact of West German television on East Germans' political attitudes using instrumental variable estimators. Contrary to conventional wisdom, East Germans who watched West German television were more satisfied with life in East Germany and the communist regime. To explain this surprising finding, we demonstrate that West German television's role in transmitting political information not available in the state-controlled communist media was insignificant and that television primarily served as a means of entertainment for East Germans. Archival material on the reaction of the East German regime to the availability of West German television corroborates our argument.
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