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The Autocratic Trust Bias: Politically Sensitive Survey Items and Self-censorship

Working paper
Authors Marcus Tannenberg
Publisher University of Gothenburg, Varieties of Democracy Institute: Working Paper No. 49. June 2017
Place of publication Gothenburg
Publication year 2017
Published at Department of Political Science
V-Dem Institute
Language en
Subject categories Political Science


Because of the perceived risk of repression some survey questions are likely sensitive in more autocratic countries while less so in more democratic countries. Yet, survey data on potentially sensitive topics are frequently used in comparative research despite concerns about comparability. In a novel approach to test the comparability of politically sensitive questions I employ a multilevel-analysis with more than 80 000 respondents in 36 African countries to test for systematic bias when the survey respondents believe (fear) that the government has commissioned the survey, as opposed to an independent research institute. The findings indicate that fear of the government induces a substantial and significant bias on questions regarding the citizen-state relationship in more autocratic countries, but not in more democratic countries. This has practical implications for the comparative use of survey data.

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