Media, social media, and politics

“How Pro-Government “Trolls” Influence Online Conversations in Russia” [Paper available upon request]

In this paper, I explore the behavior and impact of several hundred “trolls” — paid supporters of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia who were allegedly employed in late 2014 and early 2015 to leave pro-government comments on the popular social media platform LiveJournal. First, I devise a classification method of the possible objectives that would motivate governments to employ Internet trolls, the strategies trolls use to achieve these objectives, and these strategies’ observable implications. Second, combining text analysis with modern approaches in causal inference, I develop a method to measure the natural evolution of online discussions so as to estimate the causal effect of troll interventions. Using a modified regression discontinuity approach and a set of partially testable assumptions about the timing of such interventions, I discover that Russian troll activity was more successful in diverting online discussions away from politically charged topics than in promoting a pro-government agenda. Moreover, while trolls succeeded in diverting discussions away from purely political topics, their interference apparently had no effect when the topic under discussion was the national economy. Those social media users who were discussing poor economic growth, unemployment, or price inflation seemed not to be responsive to troll interventions.

“News and Social Media Accurately Measure Protest Size” (with Zachary C. Steinert-Threlkeld1, Keith Chen, and Jungseock Joo) [Paper available upon request]

This research shows that news and social media data generate accurate estimates of the size of protests. Previous work relies on estimates provided in newspapers, which may be biased because they come from protest organizers or state authorities. Using cell phone location data on ten million individuals, this note measures the size of Women’s March protests. This ground-truth measure correlates strongly with estimates provided in news media as well as three size estimates generated using geolocated tweets, one text-based and two based on images. Because of the importance of protest size for social movement success, knowing that news and social media accurately measure it means more resources should be devoted to the measurement undertaking.

“Can Independent Media Help Non-Democratic Governments Suppress Collective Action?” Link

There is a wide-spread belief that non-democratic governments are better off limiting media freedom, since it enables them to prevent mass protests and riots that could threaten the regime’s survival. In this paper, I argue that, under certain conditions, some degree of media freedom can help non-democratic leaders forestall anti-regime collective action by allowing media to report observable events truthfully, but not conduct independent journalistic investigations. For instance, reports on the number of people who attend pro-government rallies are more credible if produced by independent media outlets than by state propagandists. Thus, a signal of the regime’s popularity from the former can discourage dissidents and suppress the protest. In order to test whether media freedom can allow autocrats to credibly signal their popularity, I exploit the fact that broadcasts of the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow were available in certain Russian cities but not in others. Importantly, local availability of Echo of Moscow in a given city was determined by socio-economic and geographic rather than political conditions. Data from recent opposition protests in Russia suggest that the occurrence of a massive pro-government rally in Moscow discouraged potential protesters significantly more in cities exposed to Echo of Moscow than in other cities.

“Well-Organized Play: Symbolic Politics and the Effect of the Pro-Putin Rallies,” in Problems of Post-Communism, 2013, 60(2): 24-39 (with Regina Smyth and Irina Soboleva) Link

Following the wave of color revolutions in the postcommunist states, the Putin regime notoriously orchestrated progovernment rallies to intimidate opposition forces and demonstrate the regime’s capacity to mobilize support. While these efforts were effective in the face of limited opposition protest, they did not deter the broader electoral challenges to United Russia (UR) in December 2011 and subsequent antiregime protests throughout the winter. Scenes of competing street actions became a battleground in which the pro- and anti-Putin activists contested the political narratives that defined both the president and his supporters. Our analysis highlights the state’s use of symbolic politics—the presentation of a distinct view of politics based on communication rooted in national symbols — as a tool to build support in electoral authoritarian regimes. We develop an analytic narrative that tracks the changes in the use of political symbols in Kremlin rallies between December 2011 and March 2012. We use original survey data of rally participants in Moscow to gauge the degree to which participants’ opinions reflected the messages broadcast in the rallies.

How ICT technology changes the architecture and dynamics of social movements

“Stability of Revolutionary Governments In The Face Of Mass Protest” (with Dmitry Dagaev and Natalia Lamberova)

Why do some newly introduced revolutionary governments face anti-government demonstrations and swiftly exit office, while others are able to establish political regimes that last for decades? Historical evidence finds revolutionary governments in the first decade of twenty-first century to be three times more vulnerable to mass protest than a hundred years ago. What can explain this trend? This paper relates the stability of newly emerged revolutionary governments to the political composition of the protest that brings a new incumbent to power and in factors that can shape it. Our theoretical model, incorporating protest into a dynamic Downsian framework, features the significant role of protest coordination, communication technology, ideology, and the coercive capacity of the regime. This paper contributes to the literature in several ways. First, it discusses a new historical trend of instability of revolutionary governments. Second, it proposes a model that helps to understand the growing instability of revolutionary regimes, as well as conditions that undermine stability. In equilibrium, it is possible to have a revolutionary government overthrown by popular uprising, despite the fact that it gained power on the wave of popular support. Third, under a set of conditions, the new incumbent would always come from a different part of political spectrum. Forth, the model unpacks the warm glow component of protesters’ decision to take to the streets. Finally, we provide implications for endogenous choice of policy by revolutionary incumbent for protest dynamics.

“Leaderless Protests?” (with Dmitry Dagaev, Natalia Lamberova, and Konstantin Sonin)

A notable characteristic of the 21st century protests is the absence of leaders. We propose a simple theoretical model of leaderless protests, in which factions with different political agendas unite to topple the incumbent leader. The fractionalization of recent protests become possible as the costs of broadcasting one’s agenda among the group of potential supporters dramatically declined. Using a dataset that covers 73 countries and 114 protest campaigns in 1946-2006, we show that the spread of broadcasting technologies such as radio, TV, newspapers and Internet in separate regressions is negatively related to the probability that a campaign has discernible leadership. Our quasi-placebo tests for communication technologies that are less efficient in broadcasting potential leaders’ agenda (e.g., mobile and fixed phones) are consistent with null effect. Both baseline and quasi-placebo results are robust to inclusion of wide range of covariates, and to the use of the Heckman approach, IV regression, or non-parametric analysis via Hainmueller and Hazlett (2014) KRLS approach.

Civic activism and politics in Russia

“Trial by Fire: a Natural Disaster’s Impact on Support for the Authorities in Rural Russia,” in World Politics, 2014, 66(4), 641-668 (with Egor Lazarev, Irina Soboleva, and Boris Sokolov) Link

We explore the microfoundations of political support under a nondemocratic regime by investigating the impact of a natural disaster on attitudes toward the government. The research exploits the enormous wildfires that occurred in rural Russia during the summer of 2010 as a natural experiment. We test the effects of fires with a survey of almost eight hundred respondents in seventy randomly selected villages. We find that in the burned villages there is higher support for the government at all levels. Most counterintuitively, the rise of support for authorities cannot be fully explained by the generous governmental aid. The authors interpret the results by the demonstration effect of the government’s performance.

“Means of Production VS Means of Coercion: Can Russian Business Limit the Violence of Predatory State?,” in Post-Soviet Affairs, 2014, 30(1), 171-194 (with Andrei Yakovlev and Anton Kazun) Link

The formation of organizations capable of effectively restricting violence in society is a necessary condition for transition from developing societies to societies with sustainable economic growth. We explore the logic of formation of such organizations using the case study of collective actions of the Russian business community aimed at restricting “state violence” against business. We seek to identify the conditions leading to a shift in the choice of strategies from attempts at informal agreements with extortionists controlling means of coercion to cooperation of businessmen and trace the further evolution of organized forms of collective action. Finally, we assess to what extent the created organizations can be efficient and self-supporting in the long term.

“Civic and Political Activism in Russia” in The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia, 2018, 249-276, Brookings Institution Press (with Alexei Zakharov) Link

A common opinion among scholars is that civil society in Russia is weak and that this constitutes an obstacle to the development of democracy. The perceived weakness of civil society is attributed to a variety of causes — from the cultural legacies of imperial and Soviet Russia, which have supposedly left Russians atomized and distrustful, to the authoritarian repression of the current regime. As a result, political leaders are today unconstrained — and their policies unaffected — by those who represent particular social interests. We examine the evidence and argue that this view does not offer a full picture of Russian civil society. Russians are not more distrustful than citizens of comparable countries. The evidence does suggest a low level of civic participation after the end of communism—in part because membership in the discredited Communist Party and pro forma membership in official labor unions were not quickly replaced by other involvements — but we also find an apparent increase in civic activity in the past five years, despite the tightening of political controls. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations have improved their capacity to mobilize supporters and volunteers and to raise cash through contributions. We show that in two key regards — the petitioning of officials at all levels of the state and election monitoring— Russian citizens have affected political outcomes and policy decisions, albeit to a limited extent.