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A War of (Mis)Information: The Political Effects of Rumors and Rumor Rebuttals in an Authoritarian Country

  • Haifeng Huang

Despite the prevalence of anti-government rumors in authoritarian countries, little is currently known about their effects on citizens’ attitudes toward the government, and whether the authorities can effectively combat rumors. With an experimental procedure embedded in two surveys about Chinese internet users’ information exposure, this study finds that rumors decrease citizens’ trust in the government and support of the regime. Moreover, individuals from diverse socio-economic and political backgrounds are similarly susceptible to thinly evidenced rumors. Rebuttals generally reduce people’s belief in the specific content of rumors, but often do not recover political trust unless the government brings forth solid and vivid evidence to back its refutation or win the endorsement of public figures broadly perceived to be independent. But because such high-quality and strong rebuttals are hard to come by, rumors will erode political support in an authoritarian state. These findings have rich implications for studies of rumors and misinformation in general, and authoritarian information politics in particular.

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Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of California, Merced (e-mail: I am grateful to Steve Nicholson, Tom Hansford, Evan Heit, Xiaobo Lu, Brendan Nyhan, Danie Stockmann, Yao-Yuan Yeh, and four anonymous reviewers for detailed and valuable comments. Brett Benson, Terry Nichols Clark, Rick Dales, Matt Hibbing, Pierre Landry, Peter Lorentzen, Anne Meng, Mike Munger, Mehdi Shadmehr, Susan Shirk, Jiangnan Zhu and audiences at MPSA, Duke University (Political Science), UC Berkeley (Center for Chinese Studies) and UC San Diego (IR/PS) have also offered helpful suggestions on previous versions of the article. Data replication sets are available at, and online appendices are available at

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