Dissertation Project

My dissertation, Dictators in the Spotlight: What Do They Do When They Cannot Do Business as Usual? explores the strategies that modern authoritarian leaders use to survive in office. Unlike many 20th century dictators, todays autocrats must operate “in the spotlight”—new media and information technology enables the political opposition and the public to observe their actions. This greater observability limits the effectiveness of government repression, sometimes forcing the authorities to shift to other tools of political control. I study two of these alternative tools: the staging of pro-government rallies to create an image of invincibility and the recruitment of armies of paid supporters to shape the narrative on the Internet and disrupt online conversation.

To explore these strategies, I focus on the case of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. I argue that, faced with a wave of anti-government protests, an autocrat such as Putin can discourage further demonstrations by organizing pro-government rallies that—perhaps surprisingly—convey credible information to regime opponents about the dictator’s popularity. Moreover, this discouragement effect will be stronger—under certain conditions—if the autocrat allows some media freedom. I test this theory using data I collected on which Russian cities had access to broadcasts of the independent radio station, “Echo of Moscow.” Combining matching techniques with a difference-in-differences design, I compare protest dynamics in the cities that received broadcasts and in those that did not.

To better understand the second strategy, I explore the behavior and impact of several hundred “trolls”—paid supporters of the regime who are allegedly employed to leave pro-government comments on social media platforms. Using probabilistic topic modeling, I develop a method to estimate the causal effect of troll interventions in online discussions. I find that trolls are able to successfully divert online discussions from politically charged topics, but are ineffective in promoting a pro-government agenda. In a separate chapter, I develop a methodology for the study of such Internet actors. Specifically, I devise a set of identification methods to detect paid “political commentators” that will work on a variety of social media platforms.



All users are different, all trolls are alike