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How did West German TV affect East German protests?

Editor’s note: This is the seventh post in a series drawn from a new Journal of Peace Research special issue on “Communication, Technology, and Political Conflict.” The entire special issue has been made available by Sage Publications.

To what extent do external factors affect the stability of dictatorships? This question occupies a central place in the political science literature on democratization, as researchers and practitioners want to know if and how democracies might be able to facilitate the democratization of nondemocratic regimes. Examples of potential democratizing factors include economic cooperation or sanctions, cultural and scientific exchange programs and cross-border mass media transmissions.

More recently, journalists and scholars have examined the Internet as a possible democratizing factor. While all of these factors have been claimed to affect the likelihood of democratization, researchers have struggled to disentangle cause-and-effect relationships because controlled experimentation, the gold standard for research in the natural and social sciences, is almost always infeasible in authoritarian regimes.

In instances such as these, researchers often look for a naturally occurring variation that provides them with the leverage needed to answer causal questions. Our paper in a new special issue of the Journal of Peace Research makes use of one such “natural experiment” that creates variation in the extent to which East Germans had access to West German television (WGTV) broadcasts in the fall of 1989, during the East German revolution.

Due primarily to variation in topography and distance from West German WGTV transmitters, parts of northeastern East Germany and the Dresden district in southeast East Germany were largely cut off from WGTV broadcasts. We use the Longley-Rice electromagnetic signal propagation model, as implemented in ArcGIS, in conjunction with terrain data and data on the location and technical characteristics of WGTV broadcast transmitters to estimate the exact level of WGTV signal available across East Germany (see Figure 1). For our main analysis, we convert this continuous measure into a binary measure of WGTV availability (see Figure 2), which allows us to distinguish between East German counties with and without access to WGTV.

Figure 1

Figure 2 

We use this data, together with data on 2,734 county-level protest events that occurred in East Germany between September 1989 and March 1990, to determine the effect of access to WGTV on protest occurrence. (Figure 3 shows a heat map of the number of protests per county.) Unlike other studies that gather data on protest events from news sources, we use protest data based on the records of the East German Ministry of the Interior, which assembled daily crisis reports submitted by local police forces, the records of the Ministry of State Security and numerous published secondary sources.

Figure 3

We use a series of statistical models to assess the likelihood of protests occurring in East German counties. We estimate the risk of protest occurrence as a function of WGTV access and an unusually rich set of more than 20 variables capturing broad socioeconomic differences between East German counties, relative deprivation and county-level variation in social capital.

What did we find in our analysis? While previous research has asserted that the East German revolution presents a prime example for how foreign mass media can supply information that is critical to anti-regime collective action, our results do not support this claim. Counties without access to WGTV were no more likely to experience protest events than counties with WGTV, conditional on variables.

This conclusion is unchanged if we allow the effect of WGTV to vary over time, based on the hypothesis that information scarcity in East Germany, and therefore the potential impact of Western mass media, was higher before the fall of the Berlin Wall than after.  Our conclusion also remains unchanged if we allow for spatial diffusion or alternative sources of political information, use different measures of access to WGTV, or focus on subsets of counties or the likelihood of the first protest event occurring. Finally, our conclusion also doesn’t change if we use carefully matched subsets of counties to identify the effect of WGTV.

Our finding stands in contrast to other research on the impact of mass media, or communication technology more generally, on collective action. Indeed, given our inability to find evidence for the claim that WGTV played an important role in mobilizing anti-regime protests during the East German revolution, we are wary of broad claims that mass media or other communication technologies can facilitate anti-regime collective action and democratization in other contexts. While such arguments are plausible enough, we currently simply do not have enough empirical evidence to pin down the effects, or lack of effects, of mass media and communication technologies on collective action in authoritarian regimes.

Charles Crabtree is a PhD student in the department of political science at Pennsylvania State University.

 David Darmofal is a professor in the department of political science at the University of South Carolina.

 Holger L. Kern is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Florida State University.