Contesting Narratives of Repression: Experimental Evidence from Sisi's Egypt (With Mashail Malik)

Authoritarian regimes frequently attempt to justify repression by labeling their opponents as terrorists and accusing them of violent behavior. Are such claims successful at persuading the public to accept state-sponsored violence, and can these claims be contested effectively by human rights organizations seeking to publicize evidence contradicting the regime's narrative? To evaluate these questions, we use a novel recruitment strategy with Facebook advertisements to conduct an otherwise infeasible survey experiment in Egypt's highly authoritarian context. The experiment evaluates the persuasiveness of competing information provided by a human rights organization and the Egyptian security forces at shaping attitudes toward an incident of state-sponsored violence in which security forces killed several leaders of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. We find evidence for the ability of the Egyptian security forces to increase support for repression when they control the narrative about why violence was used. However, we also find that the effects of this propaganda disappear when paired with information from Human Rights Watch that disproves the security forces’ justifications. These findings provide experimental evidence that propaganda can enable authoritarian regimes to sustain support for repression, but they also indicate that helping human rights organizations to disseminate information in these contexts can be an effective strategy for mitigating such support.

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