Research

Job Market Paper

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

In a non-democracy, the regime can censor and manipulate social media for its own goals. This paper unpacks the technology of the Russian government propaganda and manipulation of online discussions, and establishes the causal effect of government interventions on the online behavior of social media users. Using a novel database on the activity of the state-sponsored online propagandists masquerading as ordinary citizens, the so-called “trolls”, I estimate the impact of troll interventions in online conversation by combining matching techniques with the difference-in-differences approach. I find that the Russian troll activity was significantly more successful in stopping and diverting online discussions away from politically sensitive topics than in promoting a pro-government agenda. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first study that documents the causal effect of trolls’ interventions on the online behavior of social media users.

Works in Progress

“Black Markets, Red Square: How the Kremlin Utilizes Darknet for Its Cyberpolicy”

Non-democratic governments actively use cyber technologies for political purposes. They deploy trolls and bots to disseminate misinformation domestically and abroad. They use digital surveillance to track opposition activists and breach foreign national networks to steal classified information. They can also organize attacks against critical infrastructure. However, these governments did not invent digital weaponry from the scratch. Instead, they often use solutions supplied by the black digital markets. The features of these markets determine what a non-democratic government can and cannot do in cyberspace. In this paper, I provide a systematic overview of how black digital markets are organized in Russia and how the state agencies and informal groups linked to the Kremlin operate on these markets.

“Smile! You’re on camera: Protest, Digital Surveilance and Citizen Intimidation”

State capacity to utilize digital surveilence in non-democratic countries can pose additional hurdles for regime democratization. National governments can identify and target participants of mass demonstrations, and impose punishment for taking to the street. This punishment need not be official. Using a novel dataset, I study how activists of pro-government “JeSuisMaidan” movement exploit face recognition algorithms to identify and intimidate protesters in Russia. Furthermore, I document how this intimidation affects online behavior of targeted citizens.

“How to Catch a Troll: Detection of Paid Political Commentators on Social Media”

Social media platforms, national governments, and academics develop sophisticated methods to detect state-sponsored political commentators on the Internet. Most of these methods are based on a combination of arbitrarily chosen criteria, often including the country of origin of the account’s email address or phone number, usage of specific characters, and specific keywords in the message. I argue that such methods may be unable to identify a significant proportion of paid political commentators. These commentators are apparently aware of the risks and try hard to hide their troll identity. They do not only post a lot of politically irrelevant information, but they also calibrate their behavior by adjusting the profiles of their accounts in the direction of profiles of regular users of social media. In contrast to methods with arbitrarily chosen criteria, models that employ “ground truth” data without pre-specified metrics can deliver predictions with a high degree of accuracy.

Working Papers

“How Can Free Media Help an Autocrat to Deal with Mass Protests? A Curious Case of Russia” [Available upon request]

A widespread belief holds that a free press threatens non-democratic governments since it can reveal official incompetence or misconduct and help opposition to organize. I argue that, under certain conditions, dictators can use free media to credibly communicate messages that discourage protest and thus strengthen the regime. I exploit the uneven geographical reach of broadcasts by the liberal Russian radio station Echo of Moscow to document this effect. In cities that received Echo of Moscow broadcasts, anti-Putin protesters were discouraged by the station’s credible accounts of a large pro-government demonstration in the capital, leading to lower participation in opposition rallies elsewhere. The finding helps explain the puzzle that various otherwise repressive authoritarian regimes permit some free press to operate.

Publications

“News and Social Media Accurately Measure Protest Size” in American Political Science Review, 2020, 114(4), 1343-1351 (with Keith Chen, Jungseock Joo, and Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld)

This research note shows that news and social media data generate accurate estimates of the size of protests. Using cell phone location data on ten million individuals, this note measures the size of the 2017 United States Women’s March protests. This gold standard 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. In testing these estimates, we also show that wealthier, more Democratic, and more urbanized areas generated larger protests. Because protest size is a key determinant of social movement success, knowing that news and social media accurately measure it means estimates using them can be trusted. In addition, researchers and funders should consider devoting more resources to the measurement undertaking.

“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.

“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.

“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.