In a new article for Comparative Political Studies, Holger Lutz Kern argues no (gated).
According to the literature, foreign media played a key role during the East German revolution. In contrast to the East German media, which first ignored the protests and later denounced them as the work of a few “antisocial thugs,” West German television (WGTV) broadcast news about the mounting political crisis right into East German living rooms. By spreading knowledge of successful protests, WGTV altered perceptions of political opportunity and facilitated the activation and diffusion of protest … WGTV’s over-the-air broadcasts could be received in most but not all parts of East Germany. I exploit this “natural experiment” by conducting a matched analysis in which counties without WGTV are matched to a comparison group of counties with WGTV … I find no support for the widely held view that WGTV facilitated the diffusion of protest.
The graph shows the diffusion of protests in counties that could receive West German TV (the solid lines) and those that could not (the dashed line). The difference between the two is not statistically significant. As the author argues, his findings have implications for both Susanne Lohmann and Timur Kuran’s arguments about the ways in which salient information can lead people to participate in protests. The kinds of information provided via TV seem to be insufficient (at least in this case) to play a major independent role in motivating protest. It might be that the paired counties differed in some way independent of access to West German TV, although I’m not sure what that might be. The potential relevance to recent arguments about media and protest in Iran, and in the Arab Spring is too obvious to need much discussion (although given the role of satellite rather than terrestrial broadcasting in propagating images of protest, it is hard to think about how the experiment within East Germany could be repeated).