Essays on the Political Economy of Media and Information Manipulation
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The last two decades have seen an emergence of a new regime type, called mixed regimes, whose democratically elected leaders have slowly eroded institutions of accountability. Unlike democratic breakdowns, such erosions take place in incremental steps, which create uncertainties about what the cumulative effects of these steps will lead to in the future. This dissertation focuses on media and information manipulation to understand how unconstrained leaders use media to sustain popular support and how they leverage such uncertainties for their benefit. I first analyze how governments in mixed regimes manipulate the informational environment in an era of conglomerate-owned media. I argue that state contracts in non-media sectors represent an essential tool for influencing media coverage. I use machine learning to construct a media bias measure and analyze the universe of all state contracts and a vast corpus of newspaper articles from Turkey. I show that conglomerate-owned newspapers are more pro-government than other newspapers. More importantly, this bias grows with the government’s discretion. In return, these conglomerates secure state contracts on favorable terms. Chapter 3 takes the analysis further and analyzes specific information manipulation strategies in captured media. In particular, I answer the following question: how do governments in mixed regimes manipulate economic news in times of economic crisis? Although economic crises may cause regimes to collapse, we see that unconstrained leaders in mixed regimes are resilient even in times of crisis. Using the 2021 currency crisis from Turkey and analyzing the entire corpora of three media outlets, this chapter examines the prevalence of different information manipulation strategies using various machine learning and dictionary methods. While these two chapters focus on media, Chapter 4 instead focuses on how such information manipulation strategies affect citizens in critical junctures, e.g., when asked about institutional changes that pave the way for unconstrained executives. In this chapter, I argue that aspiring unconstrained leaders are more likely to gain popular support when they present checks and balances as obstacles to getting things done. In doing so, these leaders exploit a critical tension between the possibility of gridlock and the abuse of power, which is inherent in democratic institutions. Using cross-national data and leveraging an original survey experiment from Turkey, I show that effective checks and balances decrease democracy satisfaction and that aspiring unconstrained leaders are more likely to gain popular support when they present these institutions as obstacles to getting things done. More interestingly, respondents perceive their gridlock justification to dismantle checks and balances as a pro-democratic attempt to remove the barriers to a policy-responsive regime. Overall, this dissertation project helps us understand how information manipulation in mixed regimes sustains popular support for unconstrained leaders.
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