In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Frank Wyer, covers the new article by Selim Erdem Aytaç, Koç University, Turkey, “Effectiveness of Incumbent’s Strategic Communication during Economic Crisis under Electoral Authoritarianism: Evidence from Turkey”.
In 2018, Turkey experienced a devastating currency crisis, precipitated in part by government policies that induced unsustainable debts, large current account deficits, and high inflation. The country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was reluctant to accept responsibility for the crisis, instead blaming other actors (e.g., foreign powers, the Central Bank) for Turkey’s economic problems, and pivoting to national security issues. In his research letter in the American Political Science Review, Selim Erdem Aytaç evaluates how the Turkish people responded to Erdoğan’s strategy, finding that shifting attention to security threats was much more effective than blaming other actors. His study contributes new and valuable insight to the puzzle of how so-called “electoral autocrats” maintain public support and survive economic crises.
As many as forty percent of countries are now governed by electoral autocrats, elected leaders who manipulate voting, control the media, or harass opposition parties in order to stay in office. Control over media is a particularly important tool for such leaders, as it allows them to suppress criticism for mistakes or scandals. But this task can prove challenging during an economic crisis; even the best propaganda cannot hide the fact that people are short on cash or out of work, and because so much power is centralized in the hands of the autocrats, they are the obvious targets for blame. In his paper, Aytaç identifies two distinct communication strategies electoral autocrats employ to minimize damage to their popularity. First, they attempt to shift blame to others, such as independent government institutions, or even foreign powers. Second, they attempt to change the subject, using their influence over the media to shift national attention away from the economic crisis and toward issues on which they have performed better.
How well do these strategies work in swaying the views of citizens? To find out, Aytaç fielded a population-based survey experiment among more than two thousand Turkish citizens during the country’s recent currency crisis. The experiment first reminded participants of the crisis, and then presented the treatment groups with messages representative of the two communication strategies. One set of treatments tested the blame-shifting strategy, with messaging that blamed Turkey’s economic problems on the West, the global economy, or the country’s central bank. A second set of treatments tested the agenda-setting strategy, downplaying the importance of the economy in comparison to Turkey’s national security threats. The main outcome of interest was participants’ approval of President Erdoğan.
“Aytaç’s study provides fascinating insight into both the power and the limitations of media manipulation in electoral autocracies.” The results of the experiment demonstrate a notable difference in effectiveness between the two strategies. Political messages that attempted to shift blame away from Erdoğan had no significant effect on his approval rating among the participants. By contrast, the political messages that downplayed the economy and highlighted security concerns had a strong and positive effect on participants’ approval of Erdoğan. Aytaç concludes from this evidence that shifting blame is ineffective for electoral autocrats, likely because they centralize power and project an image of strength that is inconsistent with such arguments. On the other hand, electoral autocrats can effectively use their agenda-setting power to their advantage by shifting citizens’ focus away from crises and towards other issues.
Aytaç’s study provides fascinating insight into both the power and the limitations of media manipulation in electoral autocracies. Attentive citizens may see through autocrats’ blatant attempts to avoid responsibility for their mistakes. The subtler, and more effective tool that media control gives to autocrats is the ability to simply change the subject.
- Frank Wyer is a Phd Candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studies the causes and consequences of civil war. His dissertation focuses on the Colombian conflict and the 2016 peace accords, and addresses topics ranging from armed group financing and recruitment strategies, to public support for peace agreements.
- Article details: AYTAÇ, SELIM ERDEM. “Effectiveness of Incumbent’s Strategic Communication during Economic Crisis under Electoral Authoritarianism: Evidence from Turkey.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–7
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