Who Trusts State-Run Media? Polarized Perceptions of Credibility in Non-Democracies
Authoritarian regimes systematically spread disinformation and propaganda through state-run media, but in many non-democracies, such state media are popular and relatively trusted. I argue that one explanation for this surprising outcome is government supporters' preference for like-minded content. I outline a theory of politically motivated reasoning about media under authoritarian rule and test its main implications via a series of surveys and experiments in Russia. Employing a novel experimental design, I find that supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin trust reports from state-run media more than do Putin critics; they also perceive state media as more accurate, while being skeptical of critical, independent media. Putin critics, on the other hand, trust critical media more and find these media more accurate. The usage of state-run and critical news organizations also differs dramatically between supporters and critics. Such political differences in perceptions of media may help governments to manipulate public opinion and reduce the threat that independent media pose to authoritarian rule.
The Oligarch Vanishes: Defensive Ownership, Property Rights, and Political Connections (With John Earle, Scott Gehlbach and Solomiya Shpak)
We examine the use of proxies, shell companies, and offshore firms to defend property against seizure by private and state actors. Our theoretical framework emphasizes the role of political connections in defensive ownership. Linking information from investigative journalists on the key holdings of numerous Ukrainian oligarchs with firm-level administrative data on formal ownership ties, we observe some form of defensive ownership among more than two-thirds of oligarch-controlled firms, but such conduct is much less common for those connected to the incumbent regime. Further exploiting the abrupt shock to political connections that accompanied the Orange Revolution, we find a sharp rise in defensive ownership among previously connected oligarchs.
Who Gets Ahead in Authoritarian Parliaments? The Case of the Russian State Duma
Revise and Resubmit at The Journal of Legislative Studies
Legislatures are important for contemporary autocracies, and recent research suggests there is substantial lawmaking activity and deliberation within these bodies. Does such activity matter for legislators themselves? Can it improve their career prospects? I examine the career paths of Russian national legislators, using a newly collected data set on biographies and parliamentary performance of politicians who served in the Russian State Duma in 2004–2016. I find that Duma members who apply more effort in legislative work are more likely to keep their parliamentary seats, but legislative effort does not increase the probability of executive appointment. Rather, legislators appear to be recruited into executive offices on the basis of previous work experience or personal ties. Parliamentary service, however, may still help legislators get ahead by making them more visible to government leadership. My research highlights that legislatures may be used by authoritarian governments to improve the management of political careers.
Work in Progress
Fake News and the Polarization of Beliefs in Non-Democracies: Evidence from Russia
I examine how citizens in an authoritarian media environment make judgments about the veracity of news stories. In particular, I am interested whether the quality of these judgments depends on how much citizens are exposed to state propaganda and on their political views. My analysis is based on two online studies that I designed and conducted, in which over 46,000 Russians evaluated almost 80 true and false news headlines. On average, citizens who learn their news from state media and those who support Russian President Vladimir Putin do not perform substantially worse than more critically-minded respondents. However, I find large political biases in the evaluations of news stories. Respondents with pro-government orientations often fail to recognize false stories with a pro-government slant, whereas those with critical orientations often fail to recognize false stories that go against the propaganda narratives. At the same time, both groups of citizens are overly skeptical in the evaluations of true, but politically incongruent messages. Putin supporters or critics are even more polarized in their perceptions of news information if they only follow politically congruent media. These biases can have major consequences for citizens' political knowledge and news awareness.
Is Trust in Media Decreasing? Evidence from the World Values Survey
Scholars and observers are increasingly concerned that confidence in mainstream media is decreasing, which could undermine the democratic political process and make citizens more vulnerable to manipulation. Various surveys have documented dwindling confidence in media in the U.S. and other democracies, but so far this research has not established whether this decline is a global trend. I suggest a more robust approach using data from the World Values Survey to establish worldwide trends in attitudes. The resulting analysis shows there has been some decline in confidence in media since the early 1990s, but there is no evidence of a decline among stable democracies. Confidence in media has been decreasing instead in democratizing countries and other states that have undergone substantial political changes.
A Model of Censorship and Propaganda (With Scott Gehlbach, Zhaotian Luo, and Dmitriy Vorobyev)
A fundamental constraint of information design is that propaganda must be believed to be effective. The presence of outside information tightens this constraint. We extend the canonical two-state, two-action of Bayesian persuasion to endogenize the presence of such information. The sender (government) chooses both the precision of an outside signal—it chooses a level of censorship—and a probability distribution over propaganda messages, where the distribution can be conditioned on the outside signal. The government bears an opportunity cost of censorship, in that the government relies on outside information to decide whether to repress rather than persuade. In equilibrium, the government may employ censorship and propaganda alongside repression; many combinations of propaganda and censorship may be behaviorally equivalent. Under plausible additional assumptions, we predict a positive correlation between censorship and propaganda that is decreasing in the cost of repression.
Smart Ways to Use a Postcommunist Dummy (With Dmitrii Kofanov and Yoshiko M. Herrera)
Recent work has questioned the contemporary meaning of Eurasia as a region and postcommunism as concept. Nevertheless, postcommunism is still frequently used as a dummy variable in social science research. In this paper we review ways that the postcommunist dummy has been used in existing quantitative work, and we then employ advanced clustering methods to examine how the 27 postcommunist countries of Eurasia, as well as other countries of Western Europe and Asia, cluster in terms of political, economic, social, demographic, and value-based dimensions, based on data from around 2000 and 2014. We find little evidence that postcommunist countries are distinct from Western European or Asian countries on most dimensions or that they coherently group together. This analysis provides a more systematic understanding of the heterogeneity of postcommunist countries, and we discuss the key implications of this heterogeneity for quantitative social science research.