How Autocrats Manipulate Economic News: Evidence from Russia's State-Controlled Television
Conventional wisdom says that autocrats manipulate news through censorship. But when it comes to economic affairs—a highly sensitive topic for modern autocrats—the government’s ability to censor information effectively is limited, because citizens can benchmark the official news against their incomes, market prices, and other observables. We propose that instead of censoring economic facts, the media tactically frames those facts to make the government appear as a competent manager. Using a corpus of daily news reports from Russia’s largest state-owned television network, we document extensive evidence supporting this prediction. Bad news is not censored, but it is systematically blamed on external factors, whereas good news is systematically attributed to domestic politicians. Such selective attribution is used more intensely in politically sensitive times (elections and protests) and when the leadership is already enjoying high popular support—consistent with the existing theories of information manipulation.