Book Project: “Shoring Up Autocracy: Participatory Technologies and Regime Support in Putin’s Russia.”

How do autocrats build support? In this project, I provide a theory of how non-democracies utilize nominally-democratic communication strategies to maintain regime stability and bolster public support. I argue that authoritarian leaders create and maintain what I call participatory technologies—elite-mass communication strategies that promote two-way interaction between citizens and leaders—in order to engage their citizens in the political process. Instead of being relegated to mere bystanders in the political discourse, ordinary people are actively engaged in its construction. By giving citizens a voice, however limited, in an otherwise restrictive system, governments increase support while limiting the uncertainty and potential loss of control typically associated with traditional forms of participation.

I examine this theory in a detailed case study of Russia under President Putin. Although traditional methods of limiting dissent and building public support continue to hold a key place in Russia’s menu of manipulation, the regime’s emphasis on technology has ushered in an era where more sophisticated formula are privileged over methods typically used by non-democratic regimes. In the case study, I use content and discourse analysis of two original datasets to detail the development of “The Direct Line with Vladimir Putin”—an annual, live question-and-answer session in which Putin discusses issues and concerns raised by members of the public—Russia’s participatory technology par excellence.

I rigorously test the theory examined in the case study through original survey experiments fielded on a nationally-representative sample in Russia. Results suggest that awareness of participatory technologies can improve perceptions of voice and autocratic approval and that these effects can be attributed specifically to the communicative format of these technologies, not simply co-optation or leadership effects.

However, participatory technologies do not influence all individuals equally. Drawing from work on the relationship between political awareness, political biases, and public support, I examine how political sophistication and biases toward the government influence the effect of participatory technologies on public opinion. I find that individuals with low sophistication—those with low education, limited interest in politics, and low political participation—and high levels of government trust are most affected by exposure to participatory technologies. However, individuals who are biased against the government are negatively influenced by exposure, suggesting that these communication strategies may have the potential for political polarization and backlash against the regime.

I then turn my focus from citizens to the government. In addition to helping shape public opinion, participatory technologies can reflect public opinion, acting as an information gather tool for states. In particular, I argue that these technologies act as a barometer of public opinion and help to mitigate principal-agent problems, potentially improving non-democratic governance. I substantiate these arguments using interview data and content and discourse analysis in Russia. The inherent feedback function of participatory technologies provides states with detailed information about the thoughts, opinions, and concerns of society with few of the drawbacks of traditional information-gathering tools. Furthermore, by facilitating interaction between ordinary citizens and the highest levels of government, these technologies provide information about the performance of mid- and low-level government officials, improving monitoring and ultimately constraining these officials from pursuing their own self-interest to the detriment of society.