Jordan Roberts | Duke University

Freedom House’s Scarlet Letter: Negative Assessments and Verbal Conflict

We show that when states receive a negative assessment in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, they are treated systematically worse by other states in a phenomenon we term the “Scarlet Letter effect.” A state branded as “Not Free” by Freedom House experiences increased verbal conflict from norm-respecting democracies, especially in the months immediately following the annual release of the Freedom in the World report. We separate the effect of Freedom House’s assessment from the underlying qualities (political rights and civil liberties) Freedom House seeks to quantify by exploiting a discontinuity in the assignment of a country’s freedom status (“Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free”), whereby countries on either side of a bright-line receive different statuses, even though their overall level of freedom is extremely similar. By analyzing the sample of border cases matched on their propensity to fall on the “Not Free” side of the discontinuity, we ensure that our analysis isolates the effect of Freedom House’s assessment.