But social media platforms are not shaping up to be the utopian spaces for human connection their founders hoped.
Instead, the internet has introduced phenomena that can influence national elections and maybe even threaten democracy. When the organization of a social network affects political discussion on a large scale, the consequences can be enormous. In our study released on September 4, we show that what happens at the connection points, where bubbles collide, can significantly sway political decisions toward one party or another.
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In contemporary U. Most people have a foot outside of their political bubbles. They read news from a range of sources and talk to some friends with different opinions and experiences than their own. This balance is different for different people: One person who leans Democrat may hear political arguments overwhelmingly from other Democrats, while another may hear equally from Democrats and Republicans. In our study, information gerrymandering was intentional: We structured our social networks to produce bias. In the real world, things are more complicated, of course. Social network structures grow out of individual behavior, and that behavior is influenced by the social media platforms themselves.
Information gerrymandering gives one party an advantage in persuading voters. The party that has an advantage, we show, is the party that does not split up its influence and leave its members open to persuasion from the other side. Our colleagues at MIT asked over 2, people, recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk, to play a simple voting game in groups of The players were assigned to one of two parties.
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If no party won, the game was deadlocked and no one was paid. The players saw, in real time, how many of their connections intended to vote for their party. We placed players in different positions on the network, and we arranged their social networks to produce different types of colliding bubbles. The experimental games and networks were superficially fair. Parties had the same number of members, and each person had the same amount of influence on other people.
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Using this measure, we were able to accurately predict both the direction of the bias arising from information gerrymandering and the proportion of the vote received by each party in our simple game. We also looked at the political blogosphere , examining how 1, political blogs linked to one another in the two months preceding the U.
We found that these social networks have bubble structures similar to those constructed for our experiments. The effects that we saw in our experiments are similar to what happens when politicians gerrymander congressional districts. A party can draw congressional districts that are superficially fair — each district is contained within a single border, and contains the same number of voters — but that actually lead to systematic bias, allowing one party to win more seats than the proportion of votes they receive. Electoral gerrymandering is subtle.
You often know it when you see it on a map, but a rule to determine when districts are gerrymandered is complicated to define, which was a sticking point in the recent U.
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Supreme Court case on the issue. In a similar way, information gerrymandering leads to social networks that are superficially fair. Perceptions of Political Participation in an Online Environment. It was built around the question of whether, when people engage in political behavior online -- "liking" a candidate's Facebook page, tweeting their thoughts about a political platform, signing a virtual petition -- they see their activities as having influence on the functions of government participation or as communication with others.
We were interested in which is participatory and which is seen as communication. Hoffman said many claims had been made about the substantial role social media has played in mobilizing people to become more politically active. Some also believe online political engagement is replacing traditional, offline forms of political behavior, prompting people to play a less active role when it comes to activities like voting. But without a way to define how people perceived what they were doing when they engaged in politics online, Hoffman and her co-authors were skeptical.
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The UD researchers relied on a survey of roughly 1, randomly selected American adults to assess what people were doing politically on- and offline, what they had done in the past, to what extent they thought their activities were a good way to influence the government and to what extent they thought their actions were a good way to communicate with others. The survey, which was completed in the summer of , focused on 11 political behaviors, including voting in an election, communicating online about politics, signing up for online political information, friending or "liking" a candidate or politician and putting up a yard sign or wearing a political shirt.
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The work led the researchers to conclude people have a realistic notion of what they are doing when they engage in politics online. People in the study perceived their on- and offline behaviors as playing different political roles. They seemed not to be replacing traditional, offline political engagement with online behaviors, Hoffman and her co-authors found.
Those in the study who reported being more confident in government and their ability to have an impact were even more motivated to engage in online political activities when they perceived it as communication, the study also found. Hoffman first met Jones in , when he joined the University.
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They discovered they shared academic interests, and the grant helped bring their ideas together. The collaboration between the three researchers also resulted in a second publication examining the impact of candidate emotion on political participation. That studied was published online in the journal New Media and Society in December The study worked toward filling a void in the literature, where few have looked at the effect a candidate's emotions -- like anger, anxiety and hopefulness -- have on how people engage in politics.
It also challenged the notion that emotional candidates sway voters, particularly those least involved or least knowledgeable about politics. The researchers found that the online emotional appeal of a candidate did not influence a person's likelihood of participating on that candidate's behalf, unless that person was already highly engaged and knowledgeable.
The particular emotion expressed was unimportant. Materials provided by University of Delaware.