Using Google Trends to Measure Personalized Power in Authoritarian Regimes (With Paul Schuler).

Some authoritarian regimes are dominated by a single, all-powerful political leader, while others spread authority across a range of institutions and individuals. The extent to which power is personalized in the dictator’s hands has been shown to affect a variety of governance outcomes, including reliance on coercion, regime stability, and belligerence in international affairs. Nonetheless, existing measures of personalism have important limitations, insofar as they depend heavily on coding political dynamics that are often difficult to observe in opaque authoritarian political systems. To overcome this problem, we develop a novel measure of personalism that relies on citizens’ perceptions of the dictator’s power. Specifically, we use data from Google Trends, which reflects the salience of specified search topics, to compare how much attention the dictator receives from the public relative to the second-most important political figure in the regime. We collect this data from dozens of authoritarian regimes from the present back to 2004, when Google Trends first launched. We then compare the measure to existing approaches while demonstrating its advantages in showing temporal shifts within authoritarian regimes. Following this validation, we use the data to illustrate how personalist dictators are more vulnerable to crises, and we demonstrate that dictators respond strategically to public unrest by seeking to reduce their perceived control and limit their exposure to blame.