Sergei Guriev is a professor of Economics at Sciences Po in Paris. He was a former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the former rector of the New Economic School in Moscow. He is the coauthor (along with Daniel Treisman) of Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century.
Spin dictators have fewer political prisoners, fewer political killings. This is good. This is really good. On the other hand, we want to tell everybody that they are still dictators.
- Introduction – 0:46
- Spin Dictatorships and Fear Dictatorships – 3:12
- Popular Support – 25:21
- Putin – 39:44
- Beyond Spin Dictatorship – 43:49
Last year a book came out by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman called Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century. It offered an explanation for a phenomenon that’s become widespread. Leaders who claim democratic legitimacy, but who govern as authoritarians. A few leaders who come to mind include Orbán in Hungary, Erdoğan in Turkey, and possibly Modi in India. Until recently, many would have included Putin in this category as well. It was an incredibly popular book. I’m sure many of you have heard of it. In fact, I bet a lot of you have even read the book.
But since the book’s publication, a lot has changed in the world. For starters, the War in Ukraine has grown even more violent and repression has become far more severe in Russia. Some have begun to question whether the era of the spin dictator is already over. So, I thought this was a good time to discuss the topic with Sergei Guriev. Sergei is a professor of Economics at Sciences Po in Paris. He was a former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the former rector of the New Economic School in Moscow.
Our conversation explores the idea of spin dictatorship. So, if you’re not familiar with the ideas of the book, we’re going to tackle those head on early in the conversation. But I also wanted to know how he explained his ideas in light of more recent events and Sergei does not disappoint. Now if you like this podcast, please support it as a monthly donor at Patreon or as a Premium Subscriber on Apple Podcasts. Your contribution allows me to produce these episodes week after week. You can also give the show a 5 star rating and review at Spotify and Apple Podcasts. Last week the show had 55 ratings on Spotify. This week it’s up to 60. I would love another 5 ratings for the show once again. Like always, if you have comments or questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Sergei Guriev…
Sergei Guriev, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you very much, Justin, for inviting me and for having me.
Well, Sergei, I felt that your book is really one of the absolute most important reads from last year. It’s called Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century. It’s by yourself and Daniel Treisman. It touches on some themes that we talk about regularly on this podcast. One of the themes of the book that I really want to start out with is the distinction between spin dictatorship and fear dictatorship. I think that’s crucial for this conversation. The book talks about how dictatorships changed over time as it’s evolved from fear dictatorships into spin dictatorships and that’s meant a lot less violence. It means that leaders strive for popular support. Do you feel that spin dictatorship is an actual improvement over old school 20th century fear dictatorships?
Yes, I think so. The spin dictators which we describe in the book and on which we work as empirical social scientists. We collected lots of data. We’ve measured the level of violence. Spin dictators are much less violent. I think this is good news. I think the fact that they’re much less likely to start wars which 20th century dictators were very happy to do. They have fewer political prisoners, fewer political killings. This is good. This is really good. On the other hand, and this is why we wrote this book, we want to tell everybody that they are still dictators. Spin dictators are very successful in pretending to be democrats and there are always, as Vladimir Lenin would call them, useful idiots who are happy to believe this narrative.
So, our book is about raising awareness that these regimes are not your friends. Their goal is actually to undermine democracy. There are nuanced arguments in the book, but overall, if you ask me, is the change from fear dictatorships to spin dictatorships bringing less violence? The answer is yes, for sure.
There are a lot of similar terms to this phenomenon. Levitsky and Way talk about competitive authoritarianism. A lot of people talk about the rise of populism and authoritarian populism and right-wing populism. In fact, there’s an earlier article by yourself and your coauthor, Daniel Treisman, that is called, “Informational Autocrats,” where you describe them as informational autocrats rather than spin dictators. What makes spin dictatorship a better or more precise term for describing this phenomenon, which has so many different names?
So, spin dictators and informational autocrats are the same thing. We found this term spin dictators to be easier to communicate, especially because it’s easier to make this comparison to fear dictatorship. So, once you say spin and fear dictatorship, it’s very clear what you’re talking about. We didn’t have this idea before this book. In our academic articles, we use the word informational autocracy and we wrote quite a few papers referring to informational autocrats. So, this is just a great discovery that we had after we wrote the research papers and before we started to work on the book.
Regarding populists, we wrote in the book that populists and spin dictators are different species. Populist leaders are usually democratic leaders. Populism by definition is a phenomenon where in a democracy you have political leaders with a special way of looking at things with special narratives. Some populists are aspiring spin dictators. We wrote in the book that Berlusconi and Trump wanted to become spin dictators, but the democratic institutions just stood up against them. Maybe Trump will succeed in a year. Who knows? But at this particular moment, American democratic institutions managed to resist this transformation. In other cases, we have people like Orbán or Erdoğan who successfully made this transformation and those imperfect democracies were not strong enough to resist their attempts to build a spin dictatorship.
But there have been dictators who are not populists. Putin is definitely not a populist and the pioneer of the system, Lee Kuan Yew, was not a populist. His system is not a populist system. So, in a sense, you may have differences which show that this is actually not the same model. Talking about competitive authoritarianism, in the book we discuss the distinction. We say that sometimes we can actually compare cases, compare classifications, and sometimes you may have very brutal fear dictators who are classified as competitive authoritarians. For example, we talk about Mugabe, who had elections, who had some competition, but he was a fear dictator. So, in that sense, there are differences.
The main feature of a spin dictator is pretense. The main feature is they want to look like democrats. They are not openly using brutal force. They are not saying, ‘I am a dictator.’ They usually say, ‘I am an imperfect Democrat. I’m popular. People like me. I don’t need to use force. When I send my political opponents to jail, I send them to jail on a non-political pretext.’ So, this is the idea: To look like a democrat; to speak like a democrat. Even to use business suits rather than military or a paramilitary uniform. It really is about illusions. This is the main distinction.
One of the things I’m hearing from you is that a spin dictatorship is an actual regime type. When we talk about populism and we talk about populists that can be somebody who’s just aspiring to come into power, whereas a spin dictatorship has to actually be fully formed. It actually exists. It’s not something that somebody hopes to create. I mean, it’s actually there. So, it raises the question about how it got to that point. Like, how do you spin dictatorships form? Is it an erosion of democracy or is it an improvement from something that’s more like an old school fear dictatorship?
Well, indeed, erosion of democracy is a very likely scenario. I gave an example of Orbán and Erdoğan. Some political scientists would classify Putin’s early system as a democracy as well. In that sense, you can also talk about Putin’s system emerging out of an imperfect, immature democracy. This is completely plausible. But then you can also think about regimes where the previous dictator was a fear dictator, but he exits, dies, for example, and his successors want to build something softer because brutal regimes are very costly in today’s environment. So, in that case, dictatorship may be the transition model between fear dictatorship and democracy. That is also something that is possible to happen. But we almost make an evolutionary argument saying that in the 20th century open repression worked.
In the 21st century, and especially probably in the last decade of 20th century as well, spin dictatorship is better adapted to the changing circumstances. So, this species of spin dictator is crowding out the old-style dinosaur, being an openly repressive fear dictator, and that’s why we observe many, many of them. But then we also make an argument that they also face a challenge and their challenge is they want to pretend to be popular. They want to be popular and for that they need economic growth. In our research we’ve shown that economic growth helps the popularity of authoritarian leaders like it does for democratic leaders. This means you need post-industrial knowledge workers. Stalin needed secondary educated workers who could work in factories. Putin and Erdoğan need a creative class, people with higher education, with university degrees.
But these people are not just educated people, they’re also critically thinking people. They see what these spin dictators are. This is also what we show in our research. People with tertiary education are much more critical about their leaders in the same country when you compare them to people with less than tertiary education. So, you need these people for economic growth. But, on the other hand, the more of them there are, the harder it is to silence them. It’s more expensive to coopt them. It’s more expensive to silence them through covert censorship and targeted repression. So, there is a challenge and so we conclude in an optimistic note.
There are two things which are good about the rise of spin dictatorships. First, they don’t have their own idea. They pretend to be democrats. That shows that they believe that democracy is popular. That’s good. The other thing which we say is, while they’re facing this conundrum, which is not very easy to resolve, but then of course the pessimistic nuance there is that some of them try to go backwards and start wars or start open repression like Maduro and that is also not a good outcome.
I got the impression from the book and to be honest, even from this conversation so far, that it’s based on a modernization style of argument that as economies change, as countries look to integrate into the world economy, into an open economy, that you really need to change the style of governance. That’s really key to this. That a fear of dictatorship just does not work in an open economy. That really almost requires somewhat of an open society. So, to be able to maintain this spin dictatorship, to be able to maintain dictatorship, it needs to be able to kind of walk a tightrope between democracy and autocracy or rather fear dictatorship and complete democracy.
That’s correct. We actually talked about this in chapter seven, about the elements of what we call the modernization cocktail. It’s exactly what you’ve just been talking about. It’s the importance of creative work, importance of tertiary education, importance of integrating in global economy. Today autarky is no longer an option. Even Russia today tries to trade a lot with whoever wants to trade with Russia. But let me also talk about the end of the Cold War. After the fall of the wall, the argument that we, in the West, support this particular brutal dictatorship because it’s anti-communist, this argument stopped working after the 1990s. You still have allies in the war on terror. We still have some brutal dictators who are allies, but this is completely different because the Cold War was an existential challenge for the West.
Now you don’t see anything like that. Maybe China, but… again, it’s not comparable. So, in that sense, things have changed. Another thing which we mentioned is also the global media and cross border human rights movement, which is also pretty recent. It’s very hard to be a brutal dictator without the West knowing that you’re a brutal dictator. You see what happened in 2022, when the West saw that Putin is now a fear dictator. When we saw the evidence of his war crimes, the public opinion in Europe turned immediately and forced political leaders in the West, who previously would say Putin may be not a liberal democrat, but he’s an imperfect democrat. He has elections, independent media, and so on. In 2022, that changed completely because of public opinion and public opinion was immediately informed.
So, we do have a different informational environment. That is related to modernization. But we have two nuances here as well. A debate exists about the modernization hypothesis, whether modernization triggers democratization. It’s a very heated debate. My coauthor, Daniel Treisman, has actually written a very important article saying you can still see evidence of modernization in the data, but it’s non-linear. It’s not automatic and it’s also delayed. It’s not immediate. But what we do in the book is actually even more sophisticated in the sense that when we talk about modernization, like you described it, we are not saying that modernization brings democracy. It actually means a shift from fear dictatorship to spin dictatorship.
In that sense, the debate that modernization automatically triggers democracy is not exactly what we’re saying. What we’re saying is democracy may not come immediately. Maybe dictatorship will evolve to better fit the changing global realities. In another argument, which is very important for us, we don’t only talk about modernization in your country, but also modernization globally. When CNN emerges, that may create pressure on dictatorships to evolve in the East. When YouTube arrived into the global media, that also changes the calculus in Russia. When you think about Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, these things also make an impact on how dictatorships operate. In that sense, it’s not just modernization in your country, but modernization everywhere else.
That is a very important nuance, which makes it so hard to test our theory. Because when you have modernization in one country, democratization in the very same country, you have many more observations than if you just say this year, we have YouTube which has almost 2 billion users and Facebook which has 3 billion users. It radically reduces number of observations.
I think it’s interesting how you describe modernization as nonlinear in its movement towards democracy, because, on the one hand, you can think of modernization as creating a more educated class that is asking for more political participation that leads to democracy. But, on the other hand, you can also think of modernization as creating very difficult governing challenges for regimes. Democracy requires very sophisticated institutions that are very difficult to be able to create and establish and work with. So, if you’re looking at difficult modernization challenges, I can see how you’re trying to thread a needle of how do you establish those democratic institutions and at the same time answer those governance challenges.
One example that I think of that chose spin dictatorship very purposively would be Lee Kuan Yew. You talk about him in the book as being a real innovator in this direction. I think of him as somebody who seems to have decided to pursue spin dictatorship as a way to build up some of those institutions in the short run, but answer those governance challenges directly as well. Do you think of Lee Kuan Yew on you is doing that or would you take a more nefarious stance that maybe he’s just purely in pursuit of power rather than actually answering governance challenges that are created by modernization?
I think that Lee Kuan Yew really respected modernization, and if you read his own memoir, to the extent we should trust it or not is a different question, but he almost says that he had a plan from day one. So, he wanted to run the country in a controlled way, but he wanted the country to benefit from modernization. That was his objective all along. So, then he would innovate in terms of choosing the tools of silencing the opposition in a way that would allow him to benefit from Western universities and foreign direct investors. So, this is, I think, his genius that he did find those tools. We talk about defamation laws in the book. Another thing which also distinguishes Lee Kuan Yew from others – he was not personally corrupt.
We have a theoretical paper, which is not part of the book, but in our model, the whole argument of popularity of nondemocratic leaders is that they want to pretend to be Lee Kuan Yew. In the book, we talk a lot about how Lee Kuan Yew would travel around the world and give lectures. I, myself, living in Russia, saw how Lee Kuan Yew lectured Russian officials. It was 15 years ago and he told them, ‘You need to do this, this, and this. You need to avoid starting wars with your neighbors. You need to trade with your neighbors. You want to be quiet on this. You want to be more vocal on that.’
They all wanted to be like Lee Kuan Yew, but they didn’t want to copy this particular element, to actually introduce real British laws, real British courts, and be very strict against your corrupt friends and family. This is something which distinguishes him. But our model is that every dictator stands up and says, ‘You know, democracy doesn’t equal corruption. Look at Lee Kuan Yew. I’ll be like Lee Kuan Yew.’ That’s the idea that helps people fool the voters. This narrative is super important. So, Lee Kuan Yew really, really has contributed to this model, not just as a first implementer, but also as a symbol. As a symbol that autocracy can be successful, can be modern, and can be not corrupt.
Now, this is actually somewhat different. Let me come back to your question about challenges of governance today. I have a paper, which we discuss in the book, but it’s written with other coauthors, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, Nikita Melnikov, and it came out in The Quarterly Journal of Economics2021. It’s called, “3G Internet and Confidence in Governance.” It addresses exactly the issue that you raised, that we live in an era of unprecedented transparency. After the rise of 3G internet in the last 15 years, you see how populists use it, but also how anticorruption and antiauthoritarian activists use mobile broadband internet. We give lots of examples in both directions.
We show also with econometric exercises how the rise of broadband internet, mobile broadband internet, has increased support for those who criticize the government and for almost all the governments, except for very clean ones like the Nordic countries, Switzerland, New Zealand. Only very clean governments manage to benefit from this transparency, but in all other countries it reduces confidence in government. That also helps populists and we give an example of Bolsonaro, who used WhatsApp in his campaign in 2018, but also helps anticorruption politicians like, for example, Romanian President Klaus Ioannis, who won his election on Facebook, basically. Also, anticorruption activists like Alexei Navalny. We give an example of his 2017 movie against Dmitry Medvedev (because we wrote this paper before his movie about Putin’s palace, which was even more impactful).
So, this is a new reality that we live in with the social media, with mobile broadband internet, and that creates difficulties for governments that want to stand up to populism, but it also creates difficulties for authoritarians. The successful authoritarians are the ones who manage to censor social media. Successful spin dictators are those who censor it quietly in a deniable, covert way. So, these challenges are really, really big, and not everybody can easily censor social media.
It raises the question of whether a good spin dictator (and I say good, maybe in parentheses) is acting as a dictator, but working to build up institutions that can eventually lead to democracy in the future. Singapore is an example that you bring up as being very prototypical. They’re still not a democracy. Taiwan’s another example that you brought up, at least in your paper, “Informational Autocrats.” I can’t remember if it’s in the book, but you mentioned how it went from pure dictatorship to spin dictatorship to democracy. That they actually made the transition and it scores exceptionally high on democracy indicators today, so it was a very successful transition. Did Singapore do too good of a job as a spin dictatorship that it hasn’t been able to make that transition yet to democracy?
Yes, we don’t use the word good, but we actually call Singaporean leaders maestros. We say that they master this technology, master this governance system in a way that others don’t. But even they now face challenges. You start hearing about corruption scandals in Singapore exactly for the reason I mentioned. The world has become much more transparent. It’s much harder to control information about corruption, even with all the defamation laws you have. So, they face challenges, yet they remain a huge exception. You mentioned that they are not a democracy yet and in that, they’re actually unique being a high income nondemocracy without oil. You have five or six or seven oil nondemocracies which are rich. But if you want to find one single country which is rich, meaning high income country, and nondemocratic, that would be Singapore. There is nothing else. There is just nothing else.
So, they’re quite exceptional. You may think about the personality of Lee Kuan Yew which contributed, which is quite unique. You might think about the fact that that’s a small country, so you don’t really need to benefit from the advantages of democracy, which provides feedback and gives you information on how to govern. So, it’s much more transparent because from your office in the city of Singapore, you see the whole of Singapore. If you want to look for other examples like this, you would think about Spain where early Franco was a very brutal dictatorship, then late Franco was more of a spin dictatorship, transitional governance system was a spin dictatorship, and then it moved to democracy.
One of the key attributes of a spin dictator is that they have genuine support behind them. I think that there’s no better example of that than the recent election over in Turkey where Erdoğan won 52% of the vote. I haven’t heard anybody actually question the legitimacy of the Turkish election. I mean, people have said that it’s neither free nor fair, but they didn’t say that it was actually directly rigged. He didn’t stuff the ballot boxes. People actually went out to vote for Erdoğan. Why do spin dictators feel the need to look like democrats? Why do they feel the need to have legitimate support?
That’s exactly the model. The model is ‘I want to be able to talk to NATO leaders. I want to attract foreign investment. I want to avoid open violence.’ This is also something that we say in the book. That if you’re a brutal dictator, you may end up in a bad way. If you’ve been brutal, they will be brutal towards you, because your successors will want to protect themselves from your retaliation. So, if you’re brutal, they’re scared that you will be brutal towards them. They will try to kill you. So, if you’re a spin dictator, you’re much safer. Your exit is much safer. If Erdoğan loses an election today, he may probably be investigated for corruption.
Now, if you think about how Erdoğan won this election, it was not free and fair. Why? He banned his main, most popular opposition politician, his competitor. This is not free and fair. When you choose your competition, this is not a free competition. So, he said that the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, cannot run. That may have played a role. The media scene is not balanced at all. There are hundreds of journalists who are in jail. So, in that sense, it was not a free and fair election. But Erdoğan is indeed popular. One of the things which we talk in the book in detail is how we measure popularity of leaders in regions like this. This is not an obvious thing because people may not be very open about their political preferences in nondemocratic regimes.
But what political scientists do is they use list experiments. A list experiments is when I give you a list and I say, ‘Here’s a list of five politicians, including Erdoğan. Tell me how many of those you like.’ I’m not asking you which two or three you like. I just ask how many and then I show you the same list, but without Erdoğan. I show you four politicians without Erdoğan and ask you how many of those you like. Can you tell me how many? Of course, to make it clean, I need to ask these two questions to different people. I need to pose these questions to different people. So, I take a big sample of voters, randomly split them, and one half is given the list of five and the other one is given the list of four.
Using the law of large numbers, we compare how many are supported by one group and the other group. We compare and we end up with a good measure, which gives you an average support for the person, for the leader. But no single respondent actually says whether he supports or doesn’t support Erdoğan. So, you can measure the popularity of leaders in such regimes. The results of these studies shows that in regimes like this, people are not afraid. There is a small portion of people, probably 10-15% in Putin’s Russia, for example, who are afraid. But still, you can actually say how popular the leader is. Polls are more or less trustworthy, even in countries like this.
A lot of spin dictators are genuinely popular, like you just mentioned. I mean, Putin had approval ratings that were as high as 80% and I’ve seen political science studies showing that those are accurate using the exact techniques that you were just talking about. Is that support coming from people supporting the leaders themselves or do people actually support the idea of spin dictatorship as a way to be able to get things done in a modern political regime?
So, this is a great question. I think the whole idea of spin dictatorship is to pretend to be a democrat, because people support democracy. That’s the idea, so people think that they live in a democracy. What we show also in our empirical research, which we refer to in the book, is people don’t know about censorship. If you ask people in a country like Russia before 2022, they would say, ‘Well, our media freedom is not perfect, but it’s not worse than in Europe.’ You would have a great divide between people with tertiary education and without tertiary education. People with tertiary education understand everything, more or less. Others don’t. So, there is a huge gap between how people understand the media freedom and the censorship.
The whole idea of Putin was to keep some independent media in place to say, ‘Look, we do have opposition media. They don’t reach out to a big audience, but it’s not because I harass them, but because nobody wants to read them.’ Then you would harass them in a way, which is again, a typical spin dictatorship approach where you talk to companies which sign advertising contracts with them and you dissuade potential business partners. Sometimes you bribe the media owners. This is something that is documented in Peru and in Orbán’s Hungary. So, all kinds of techniques which are hidden and covert which are used to make sure that people don’t understand that they actually live in a spin dictatorship.
Then the next step is what brings popularity to leaders like this. We’ve also studied this question and basically the factors are the same. If economic performance is good, the leader is popular. Now here again, spin matters. Because we showed that objective economic performance contributes to the popularity of the leader. But also, if the leader can convince you that the economy is doing well, when it’s not doing well, that subjective component also matters. So, we show that there is a gap between subjective and objective perception of economic performance, if you manage to spin your economic performance. People like that, people who think economy is doing well are more likely to support you. Also, if you manage to provide good public goods, safety, if you fight crime, that’s good. If you fight inflation, unemployment, that’s good.
But then when we talk about the censorship. We show that if people know that censorship is there, you are not popular. If you don’t know that censorship is there, then this covert censorship increases popularity. That’s the answer to your question. People want to live in countries which have no censorship. So, if you manage to spin the information about censorship, that works for you. This is the beauty of the model. You can censor information about censorship itself. So, this is a recursive argument here. You don’t tell people that you actually use censorship, you censor information about your spin.
In the United States, it seems like there’s lots of debates about using censorship in different ways, though. For instance, Republicans feel that they’re being censored on social media and there’s recently been some court cases where the Biden administration, people in the administration working for the government, had reached out to Twitter to be able to ask to have certain posts taken down because it was inaccurate information. Republicans see that as a form of censorship. On the other hand, you have cases where Republicans are removing books from schools in places like Florida under DeSantis. Democrats tend to support the efforts to remove fake news from social media. Republicans tend to support the attempts to limit books in public libraries and in schools in different ways.
Is it possible that there’s some genuine support for different types of censorship and different things that spin dictators do in other countries? Because I see things in the United States that truly is still a democracy, that there’s actual support for different types of censorship in the country and things that are really difficult questions to kind of grapple with to be honest.
I fully agree with you. I think neither of those parties wants to have censorship. They both feel their cause is against false things. So, they’re both polarized and convinced in their beliefs that they need to introduce those controls, because the other side is disseminating false stuff. So, this is especially interesting because in the US you do have the first amendment, which pretty much prohibits a lot of regulation of free speech. For example, in Europe, we now have a digital services act, which will change things quite a lot in regulating social media, but in the US you cannot do that because of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment. So, it’s a fascinating time we live in where we have polarization, not just of political preferences, but also beliefs about facts.
The Republicans and Democrats now don’t just disagree on the ideal social and economic model for the country. They disagree about the facts, the world they live in. This is really scary. There is more and more research in social science on this and this is quite scary. In Europe, you also have polarization, but there is much less decline of trust in the facts, in experts, in scientists. So, we don’t have this phenomenon, for example, of vaccine skepticism, which we observed recently. It was much less important in Europe than in the US and part of that is social media as well. Social media increases polarization.
There’s been research in particular by Matt Gentzkow. It was a paper in 2019. When they ran the first Facebook deactivation experiment, they chose in a randomized control trial a group of people who did not follow Facebook for a month. So, when they emerged out of this deactivation month, they were much less polarized in their political views, but also interestingly, much less informed about political life in general. So, Facebook is really, really a source of information about politics today. In that sense, yes, it’s a scary world we live in right now.
One of the other thoughts in the back of my mind is that people who I know that are very conservative in the United States that vote Republican would look at some of the things happening in the country right now as evidence of a spin dictatorship, such as the prosecution of Donald Trump who’s facing multiple indictments. They would see the prosecution of him as being similar to other prosecutions of politicians in places like Turkey and Russia and others. How do we differentiate between legitimate state actions that are trying to preserve the rule of law from efforts of a spin dictator to try to remove their political opponents?
This is exactly the question, to what extent we can breach the gap between these extremes where people live in their bubbles of facts. Each bubble has a different set of facts. So, some people accept the fact that Trump has lost an election and others just don’t. We are talking about not just one or two percent of the population, more like 20 or 30 or 40. With that particular challenge, it’s very hard to reach out because if you believe in this set of facts, indeed, the prosecution of Trump looks to you as the prosecution of Navalny or indeed of Turkish opponents, in particular Demirtaş, that we talk about in the book. So, this is hugely important.
Now, I’ll tell you a few things that is based on my other research on fact checking and sharing of false information. We published a paper last year with Emeric Henry and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya on various interventions that you can do to disseminate sharing of false news on social media. We did an experiment on Marine Le Pen and Facebook in France during the 2019 parliamentary elections for European Parliament. But we also saw that Twitter did the same interventions in May 2020 against Trump. So, we think that Twitter has done the same experiment and learned the same results, which is certain things are super effective against dissemination of false information. We ran our experiment before, so it’s an independent study.
But basically, what Twitter did in May 2020 is said, ‘Look, Trump is saying that mail vote is fraudulent. We believe that you should be able to see this tweet, but then there is a blue link here on which you can click and fact check it.’ So, our study of a similar design suggests that that dramatically reduces sharing of this false information. Moreover, even people who don’t click think that this is much more likely to be false and they don’t share. The other thing which Twitter did when Trump wrote a tweet ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts’ about BLM protests. Twitter said, ‘This is a tweet which is glorifying violence, but we believe you have a right to see it. But for that, you need to make one more click.’
So, they put a screen in front of the script. If you want to see it, you can see it. But it requires one more click. That also reduces the audience by a factor of four. So, these are simple interventions that you can undertake that can actually reduce the sharing of false information. In the current study, which is not written up yet, with the same coauthors, we do the same thing actually on Twitter in the midterm elections 2022 and we see which interventions like this are very effective. Following on the work of Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, we also use nudges before sharing this tweet. Think about the fact that we have a lot of false information circulating on social media. This nudge, this idea of a health warning, if you like, that functions really, really well.
So, we do have certain solutions like this and we need to do more studies on this and we need to introduce regulations like this. I think, unfortunately, with the current incentives on Twitter and Facebook, we are probably more likely to make progress in Europe than in the US. But the reputational pressure on Twitter and Facebook is already quite large.
I’d love to ask you more questions about this, but I’d like to move to the subject of Vladimir Putin because he plays such a prominent role in your book. Shortly after your book came out, Putin engaged in a full-scale war into Ukraine and it wasn’t just the war itself, even though spin dictators don’t engage in such dramatic forms of violence against their neighbors. It’s also the way that he was governing within Russia itself. It appears that Putin has made this transition from spin dictatorship to fear dictatorship. Why?
That’s a great question and the way you formulated it, that’s exactly how we understand the transformation. We already saw some signs of that coming up when we finished the first draft in May 2021. We said that Russia may actually move to a fear dictatorship. It may be on the transition path right now. The reason for that was we saw how Putin started to use political accusations against Navalny and his team. He announced that Navalny’s organization, which is an anticorruption foundation, is actually an extremist organization. So, he stopped pretending that Navalny is a fraudster and tax evader. He started to talk about Navalny as a political opponent. Just a half a year before, he tried to kill Navalny in a spin dictator way. He poisoned him in a deniable way and he pretended that it wasn’t him.
So, this transition already started to happen and after Navalny came back, the protests against his arrest were crushed very brutally. A poll showed that 52% of Russians are now afraid of a return to mass repression. So, we already had signs, because Putin’s model of spin dictatorship was coming to a dead end. With Navalny being so effective as a YouTube talk show host, he was actually competing quite effectively with TV. He had millions and sometimes tens of millions who would watch his videos. So, in that sense, Putin needed to rethink the model. He thought he would have a spin dictator war. This is very important. The 2014 annexation of Crimea is a typical spin dictator war: bloodless; quick; again, deniable. He said, it’s not my soldiers. We don’t know whose.
He actually created the Prigozhin group, Wagner, a private military company to have this plausible deniability. It is now when Putin says, yes. It was us. We paid them. They work for us. But in 2014-15, he would use people with a deniable affiliation. So, he needs to change to a new model. Initially, he didn’t want to introduce full scale fear dictatorship. He launched this war and he thought he would win it in three or four days. That would be a replay of 2014. Then it didn’t work because the West was better prepared with sanctions, with weapons given to Ukraine. The Ukrainian army was better prepared. US shared intelligence on Putin’s plans, which was super important because Putin could have gotten control of the airfield next to Kiev, parachuting and bringing lots of soldiers next to him. That didn’t work.
So, a number of factors have contributed. Also, Putin didn’t know how corrupt his army was, but he initially wanted to keep a spin dictatorship in place. Only after the first week, he saw that he could not run the country in the same way. There are many protests. There are open letters from journalists, scientists, activists against the war. He understood that he needs to introduce a full-blown fear dictatorship.
That changed literally one week after the war and not one week before the war. He allowed independent media to operate, but some of it two or three days after the beginning of this war he saw how dangerous those independent media are because they were gaining an audience in an unprecedented way. Whatever polls he ran at that point showed that his popularity was coming down every day because Russians didn’t need this war. But then he introduced full censorship and Russia has become a fear dictatorship.
So, early in the conversation, we said that spin dictatorships arise almost as a development from modernization. The way that the world is changing all around us. But spin dictatorships also come to an end. We see in Russia an instance where spin dictatorship turns into a fear dictatorship. In a place like Taiwan, we see how spin dictatorship can transition to democracy. What’s the difference between the two? Why do some spin dictatorships devolve into fear dictatorships? Why do other spin dictatorships develop into liberal democracies and what can we do to encourage them to move towards democracy rather than the more tyrannical form of dictatorship?
So, this is a question that we don’t have an empirical answer to for a simple reason. Spin dictatorship is a recent phenomenon, so we don’t have too many observations of transitions. Lots of spin dictatorships are around and very few of them have actually ended. So, this is something that is very hard to analyze. We just don’t have the data to answer your question. We can speculate that leader change may contribute to the change of the regime. Sometimes it goes in one direction. Sometimes it goes in the other direction. Again, it’s hard to predict.
If you think about Chávez, who was an exemplary spin dictator, being a military officer. He was an exemplary spin dictator and he was succeeded by a bus driver, Maduro. You would think that Maduro is an unlikely candidate for a brutal, open fear dictator. But Maduro did evolve into a fear dictator and it’s always hard to predict. So, as a social scientist, I would rather be skeptical about my ability to answer your question.
Early on, we said that one of the reasons why a country like Singapore develops into a spin dictatorship is the need to meet those modernization challenges while they’re trying to develop their institutions. It makes me wonder if part of what an opposition can do is to try to work to strengthen those institutions. I’ve talked to Laura Gamboa. I think she has an incredibly influential book called Resisting Backsliding where she emphasized how some states actually double down on utilizing institutions and utilizing just the aspects of their country that are democratic to be able to withstand that aspiring autocrat or that spin dictator who’s in power.
We see other instances like Venezuela and Turkey that pursued military coups, extra constitutional efforts that eroded institutions. I mean, it just makes me wonder if the key difference between some countries and others is the fact that the opposition as well as the elites need to continue to develop those institutions that hopefully transition towards democracy rather than a more brutal form of autocracy.
That’s exactly true. And in the book, we also emphasize that institutions don’t come from Mars and they don’t exist on their own. They need to be defended and in the book we emphasize the role of this class of people that you mentioned: civil society, activists, lawyers, experts, scholars, journalists. These are the people who defend those institutions. In particular, in 2020, around the election that Trump has lost, we saw certain individuals who played a key role in saying Trump has lost this state. A single individual, the Secretary of State of Georgia, made the choice of being loyal to institutions, to defend the institutions. That is what depends on us. That’s what depends on civil society.
In some cases, civil society is better organized. It’s better informed. It’s better trained and in some, just not enough. I think the whole message is optimistic in the sense that you can make a difference. We also give an example where spin dictatorship transitioned to democracy is Armenia. In Armenia, one single person who is now the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan built a movement around the election, around the transition of power from the exiting president who was becoming prime minister and thus continuing to run a spin dictatorship as if it was a democracy to circumvent term limits.
This opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan has built this movement and an Armenian transition to democracy. So, these things matter and sometimes even individual activists can make a difference and civil society in general can as well. In the US I think another additional challenge is polarization and I think this is something that needs to be addressed. Healthy forces from both sides should try to work together and maintain the center.
I didn’t talk about solutions which are related to political design, but one of the things which political scientists really support is ranked choice voting, which is already now being trialed in many places in the US. Ranked choice voting helps you to promote centrist politicians. If I love the extreme left, but I’m okay with the center, I rank the center number two. If I love the extreme right, I again, rank the center number two and the center candidate may actually prevail. We exit a dead end where we need to choose between the extreme right and extreme left. So, this is super important as a solution and I hope that many, many more states will be able to do it.
Another thing is a dialogue, which you can launch through what’s called Citizen’s Assemblies, Deliberative Democracy where you can pick normal people, not just the elites, but normal people randomly and get them in the same room to talk about policy issues and propose solutions. There are also lots of experiments throughout the developed world and developing world, which shows that deliberative democracy also works and helps overcome dead ends, political dead ends and polarization. So, we do have solutions and I think we need to work more on them. Defending democratic institutions is a worthy cause for all kinds of reasons. Unless you’re Singapore, you cannot be rich and nondemocratic. So, if you want to be rich, as an economist I can tell you, if you want to maximize income per capita, it better be a free country.
Well, Sergei, thank you so much for joining me today. The book one more time is Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century. Thank you so much for joining me today. Thank you so much for writing the book.
Thank you very much. Justin.
Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman
“Informational Autocrats” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman
Follow Sergei Guriev on Twitter @sguriev
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