Some blogs, including this one, are devoted to analysis and discussion of anticorruption policy issues. But a number of anticorruption bloggers are more like investigative journalists—finding and exposing instances of (alleged or apparent) corruption. Do these blogs make a difference?
This question is related to the more general question of whether the modern communications revolution—particularly the spread of internet access—will be helpful in fighting corruption. There’s reason for optimism: there’s already lots of evidence that the spread of traditional media (newspaper and radio) were crucial in the fight against corruption in the 20th century, and the internet (along with other communications technologies, like mobile phones) lowers the cost of both disseminating and accessing information about corrupt activities. In addition to individual anticorruption bloggers and websites, platforms like I Paid a Bribe and Bribespot are emerging that may enable much larger numbers of people to disseminate information. These new technologies have gotten a lot of press, but do they make a big difference?
There’s surprisingly little systematic evidence on the impact of internet on corruption, but a recent paper on the Russian anticorruption blogger (and opposition figure) Alexei Nevalny, co-authored by Ruben Enikolopov, Maria Petrova, and Konstantin Sonin, suggests that this sort of anticorruption blogging may have a real impact. Nevalny is a well-known (and controversial) figure in Russia, and he got a lot of international press last month for his exposé on corruption in the Sochi Winter Olympics. But he got his start blogging about corruption in Russian state-owned companies. And, according to Enikolopov, Petrova, and Sonin, Navalny’s posts made a difference: when he posted about a company on his anticorruption blog, that company’s value took a significant hit. What can we learn from this?
For one thing, it suggests that Navalny’s blog was disclosing genuinely new information. If the corruption he was revealing was already widely known, it would presumably already be reflected in the share price. For another, it suggests that Navalny’s information was credible, at least to investors. If he were viewed as a crank with a political axe to grind, his allegations of corruption wouldn’t affect firm value (unless everyone expected everyone else to treat the information as significant, even though no one believed it—which seems unlikely). Third, it suggests that the corruption in Russian firms that Navalny was exposing typically involved management taking actions that injured shareholders. Otherwise, it’s not clear why there would be such a negative market reaction to the information (unless the disclosure increases the likelihood of some sort of government investigation—which seems unlikely in this context).
Taken together, this seems to suggest that anticorruption bloggers can, at least under some circumstances, make a real difference. That said, as the authors of the study acknowledge, it’s not straightforward to sort out cause and effect here. Maybe Navaly’s posts revealed information that caused firms to lose value, but it’s also possible that Navalny was more likely to post about a firm that was already in trouble, and would have lost value anyway. To deal with this, the study’s authors do something clever: they look at periods when the entire server that hosted Navalny’s blog was shut down for reasons unrelated to his blog. During those periods, those companies that Navalny was in the habit of writing about frequently tended to do better. That suggests that his posts actually had an impact.
What to make of this? The study of Navalny’s impact does provide preliminary support for the hypothesis that internet technology can be a valuable tool in the fight against corruption. But it’s worth noting that Russia may be a somewhat unusual case, in that the mainstream media is effectively controlled by the state, but bloggers are at least somewhat free to post on controversial topics. In a country with a freer press, like the United States, blogging may be less likely to provide genuinely new information. In a country with much tighter controls over all media (including blogs), like China, bloggers may be less free to provide new information even if they have it.
Also, Alexei Navalny was quite an unusual blogger. His personal wealth and status as a shareholder of many of the companies he blogged about gave him access to information that others did not have, making his posts credible. The technology gave him a way to spread his information (despite the controls on the mainstream media), but his access to information was due to a combination of his personal opportunities and Russian corporate law. So his example might not be generalizable to anticorruption bloggers generally.