Who Rats? An Empirical Study of Defection During Political Arrests

Information is a critical factor determining the outcomes of state-challenger interactions. In the face of collective challenges, such as protests, acts of terror, or insurgent attacks, governments routinely increase their use of repression. But dissidents make efforts to hide their identities and behaviors from the state, often maintaining a series of safe houses, clandestine supply networks, and underground organizations, while governments attempt to gather information on challengers through a broad set of mechanisms, including surveillance, civilian collaboration, and challenger defection. Yet, despite the importance of information for shaping conflict outcomes, there is relatively little work on studying information transmission which implies that existing research has struggled to directly test the factors shaping flows of information. In this paper, we directly address flows of information from challengers to the government. We focus our attention specifically on the question of defection during political arrest (i.e., “ratting”), seeking to account for the factors that facilitate or constrain an arrested challenger from providing information to the captor. To do so, we make use of unique data detailing the fate of individuals, each of whom was arrested by agents of the U.S. government for participation in the activities of a Black Nationalist organization known as the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). Using data gathered from the individual arrest records, we analyze who rats, who was ratted on, and who ratted on whom. The analysis yields important new insight into the factors shaping information distribution during civil conflict. It also provides a novel test of one of the most foundational analytic models in political science—the prisoner’s dilemma.