Harnessing Distrust: News, Credibility Heuristics, and War in an Authoritarian Regime

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To evaluate the credibility of political information, citizens rely on simple logical rules-of-thumb or heuristics based on various resources, such as personal experience and popular wisdom. It is often assumed that contrary to dependence on the media, personal experience and popular wisdom help citizens to build alternative understandings of political events. However, little is known about how citizens use heuristics in authoritarian settings. Relying on focus groups, this study uses Russian citizens’ reception of the regime propaganda regarding Ukraine in 2016–17 as a case study to investigate the credibility heuristics of citizens living in an autocratic state during war. Deploying both qualitative and quantitative analysis of citizens’ discourse, I identify the main heuristics used to evaluate the credibility of propaganda. I show that citizens perceive regime propaganda with distrust and often rely on popular wisdom and personal experience to identify bias. However, this does not necessarily guarantee a critical attitude toward regime propaganda. Citizens use these resources to evaluate propaganda’s credibility selectively depending on their political alignment. Indeed, their reliance on personal experience and popular wisdom undermines the authority of state media in general. However, propaganda resonates with the distrust toward media and politics that permeates citizens’ experiences. As a result, the reliance on these resources for interpreting political information can amplify, rather than erode, the credibility of specific news stories. These results contribute to the understanding of both how propaganda is received and credibility heuristics are used in an authoritarian environment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)527-554
Number of pages28
Issue number5
Early online date9 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - 9 Aug 2023


  • propaganda
  • credibility
  • heuristics
  • media trust
  • authoritarianism


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