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Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes

  • Holger Lutz Kern (a1) and Jens Hainmueller (a2)

In this case study of the impact of West German television on public support for the East German communist regime, we evaluate the conventional wisdom in the democratization literature that foreign mass media undermine authoritarian rule. We exploit formerly classified survey data and a natural experiment to identify the effect of foreign media exposure using instrumental variable estimators. Contrary to conventional wisdom, East Germans exposed to West German television were more satisfied with life in East Germany and more supportive of the East German regime. To explain this surprising finding, we show that East Germans used West German television primarily as a source of entertainment. Behavioral data on regional patterns in exit visa applications and archival evidence on the reaction of the East German regime to the availability of West German television corroborate this result.

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Authors' note: This is one of several joint papers by the authors; the ordering of names reflects a principle of rotation. Both authors contributed equally to this paper. Software to estimate local average response functions is available upon request. We thank Alberto Abadie, Christopher Anderson, Jake Bowers, Daniel Butler, Alexis Diamond, Andy Eggers, Justin Grimmer, Dominik Hangartner, Dan Hopkins, Guido Imbens, Lutz Kern, Jan Lemnitzer, Walter Mebane, Na'ama Nagar, Beth Simmons, Hans-Jörg Stiehler, Susan Stokes, Christopher Way, Robert Weiner, and seminar participants at Harvard, MIT, Dartmouth, Cornell, Northwestern, UC Davis, and the University of Berne for very helpful comments. Brigitte Freudenberg at the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the National Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic was of great help in tracking down archival material. Peter Bischoff, Evelyn Brislinger, Kurt Starke, and especially Hans-Jörg Stiehler patiently answered our many questions about the surveys conducted by the Central Institute for Youth Research. The usual disclaimer applies.

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