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Local Media Organizations and Media Bias

Ongoing Project

New Interest, New Measures, Old Problems: An Analysis of the Latent Dimension(s) of Democracy

(with Scott deMarchi, Jeremy Springman, Mateo Villamizar-Chaparro, Erik Wibbels), Working Paper

The third wave of autocratization has brought renewed attention to the study of regime type. This attention has been accompanied by a proliferation of new and more nuanced measures of democratic characteristics. We combine recent approaches using machine learning for dimensionality reduction with new democracy measures to investigate the latent dimensions of democracy. Using data from eighteen distinct democracy indices, we explore variation in theoretically-motivated dimensions of democracy across historical periods.

The Islamic Waqf: Instrument of Unequal Security, Worldly and Otherworldly

(with Timur Kuran), Working Paper

Until the modernizing reforms of the 19th century, the Islamic waqf played a massive role in the economy of the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa. Formally, it was a trust founded by an individual; income from the endowed assets financed designated services in perpetuity. The largest waqfs were established by members of high officials of the ruling dynasty to provide social services now supplied by municipalities or charitable corporations. These Islamic ‘‘state waqfs’’ have been the focus of case studies that make the waqf seem mainly a supplier of public goods. Using an original data set consisting of Istanbul waqf deeds from 1457-1923, this paper explores the functions of Islamic ‘‘regular waqfs’‘—waqfs founded either by elites below the top echelon or by commoners. The typical regular waqf had a relatively modest endowment and architectural footprint. In a setting characterized by weak property rights and legal system that favored males, Muslims, and state officials, it was established principally to provide material security to its founder and his or her descendants. Providing public goods was not among its major functions; neither was assisting the poor. Founders belonging to a disadvantaged group, including women, were especially likely to prioritize wealth sheltering. Regular waqfs thus served to perpetuate prevailing worldly inequalities through material security to the wealthy. They also aimed to create inequalities in the hereafter. Their major functions included financing prayers to expiate the sins of founders and their families.

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Paying the dues? Access, Congestion and Bribery

(with Diego Romero and Marco Morucci), Working paper

Bribery in public service delivery, regardless of its welfare consequences, is a fact of life for citizens in many developing countries. The existing literature on bribery and corruption has argued that citizens with low access to public services are more likely to pay bribes to make up for their lack of access. We argue that sometimes the opposite might be true, with individuals that have better access to public services being more likely to engage in corrupt exchanges with public officials, both because they are socially closer to the public officials, and because their baseline cost for accessing the public service is lower. Using administrative and survey data from Guatemala, we show that individuals that have easier access to public services are more likely to engage in bribery in several ways, as well as more willing to pay higher bribes, and less likely to report public officials for corrupt behavior. Our results imply that policy efforts to improve access to public services in developing countries might have the unexpected negative effect of increasing corruption if they are not accompanied by civil service reform.

Feel free to contact me ( for the most recent draft

Institutional Gridlock and Democratic Backsliding: explaining popular support for aspiring autocrats

Working Paper

In recent years, the world has seen a wave of democratically elected leaders move their countries in undemocratic directions. Why do people support leaders who remove checks and balances? I argue that aspiring autocrats are more likely to gain popular support when they present these institutions as obstacles to getting things done. In doing so, aspiring autocrats exploit a critical tension between the possibility of gridlock and the abuse of power, which is inherent in democratic institutions. An original survey experiment conducted in Turkey supports these arguments. More interestingly, respondents perceive the aspiring autocrats’ gridlock justification as a pro-democratic attempt to remove the obstacles to a policy-responsive regime. These results show that democratic backsliding is strategic, and its leaders exploit a tension in democracy that makes it harder for citizens to perceive the threat they face.

Feel free to contact me ( for the most recent draft

Democratic Backsliding and Media Responses to Government Repression of Journalism: Machine Learning Evidence from Tanzania

(with Diego Romero and Erik Wibbels), Working Paper

One crucial feature of the ongoing global wave of democratic backsliding is that aspiring autocrats seek to influence the media, oftentimes through legal restrictions on the press and social media. Yet little research has examined how formal and social media respond to those legal restrictions targeting the free flow of information. We develop an original argument linking key characteristics of media sources to the regulatory environment and examine how the content and sentiment of their coverage responds to restrictive media laws. We test our claims using an enormous corpus of electronic media in Tanzania and employ two state-of-the-art neural network models to classify the topics and sentiment of news stories. We then estimate diff-in-diff models exploiting a significant legal change that targeted media houses. We find that critical news sources censor the tone of their coverage, even as they continue to cover the same issues; we also find that international news sources are unable to fill the hole left by a critical domestic press. The paper sheds light on the conditions under which the press can be resilient in the face of legal threats.

Feel free to contact me ( for the most recent draft

Favor exchanges and pro-government media bias

Working Paper

A free press is a pillar of democracy, but in our era of democratic backsliding, many aspiring autocrats have undermined media freedom. Extant research has focused on censorship laws and state advertising as tools to capture the media. I argue state contracts in non-media sectors represent an important tool for influencing media coverage. Conglomerates with diverse economic interests increasingly own media outlets. State contracts provide aspiring autocrats with a valuable carrot to incentivize conglomerate-owned media for pro-government coverage. I test this argument by analyzing a vast corpus of newspaper articles from Turkey and exploiting a legal change, which increased the government’s discretion over distributing state contracts. Constructing a context-aware bias measure using machine learning and analyzing the universe of all state contracts, I show that conglomerate-owned newspapers are more pro-government than other newspapers. This bias grows with the government’s discretion. In return, these conglomerates secure state contracts on favorable terms.

Feel free to contact me ( for the most recent draft

Politics and Tree Cover Loss: Evidence from High-Resolution Satellite Data

R&R at New Perspectives on Turkey

Environmental issues have gained saliency in Turkish politics over the last decade, especially after the Gezi Park demonstrations. However, no systemic empirical evidence exists to inform us about the relationship between politics and tree cover in Turkey. Although Turkey witnessed significant tree loss over the last decades, we do not know how much of this damage is attributed to politics. Using high-resolution satellite data, this paper provides the first empirical relationship between local politics and tree loss. The results show that districts with Justice and Development Party (AKP) mayors have higher tree loss by around a combined area of 62 football pitches on average. These results imply that local governments can have a substantial impact on the environment despite their limited effect in the design of environmental policies.

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Electoral Responses to Proximity of Healthcare

(with Asli Cansunar and Gozde Corekcioglu), R&R at the Journal of Politics (2nd round)

Existing work on electoral returns to public goods provision has investigated changes in government expenditure aggregated at levels that do not have any bearing on geographical access. In this paper, we focus on the political economy of the catchment areas of public services. Rather than investigating the binary relationship between public goods provision and electoral returns within formally drawn borders, we ask whether decreases in walking time to a public service attract votes for the incumbent. Leveraging the Family Medicine Reform in Turkey, which gave rise to an exogenous variation in voter proximity to the free health clinics in Istanbul, we find that communities whose walking distance to the closest clinic decreased voted significantly more for the AKP, the incumbent, between 2011 and 2015. We also show that poorer and healthcare dependent communities were more responsive to improvements in spatial accessibility to the local clinics.

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Truth or Dare? Detecting Systematic Manipulation of COVID-19 Statistics

(with Asli Cansunar and Gozde Corekcioglu), Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, Vol. 1: No. 4, pp 543-557.

Which countries manipulate COVID-19 statistics? Does the party ideology of local governors affect the probability of data manipulation at subnational levels? How does democratic quality affect statistical transparency during the pandemic? In this article, we apply election fraud detection methods — various digit-based tests that exploit human biases in generating random numbers — to the daily announced official numbers of new and cumulative coronavirus infections. First, we use digit-based tests to identify countries that likely manipulated their pandemic statistics. We then move on to examine the empirical relationship between democratic quality and data transparency. We find suggestive evidence that data manipulation occurred in China, the United States, Russia, and Turkey. Second, we show that non-democracies, as well as countries without free and fair elections, are more likely to release data that display signs of statistical malpractice.

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Teaching Assistant

, , 1900

  • Duke University, Graduate Teaching Assistant:
    • Politics of Authoritarian Regimes