Data Story: Jaime Settle on How Social Networks Affect Political Mobilization

This week we have a data story with Dr. Jaime Settle, a Professor at William & Mary, who studies how social networks affect how we think, feel and behave politically. Her work has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Journal of Politics, Political Research Quarterly, and American Politics Research. We’re thrilled to have Professor Settle speaking at Big Boulder on a panel about research happening in the academic world on social data. 

In a recent Nature publication, “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,” Settle and her co-authors looked at how political mobilization messages on Facebook during the 2010 US congressional elections affected real-world behavior.

Jaime Settle, William & Mary

1. How was your team able to get access to Facebook data?

Appropriately enough, the connection was made through the power of social networks. The collaboration was formed when I was a graduate student at University of California, San Diego. My advisor, James Fowler, was introduced to Cameron Marlow, the head of data science research at Facebook, through a mutual friend. This friend thought that James and Cameron had a similar vision for the power of online social network data to help us understand fundamental social processes that structure human behavior. Cameron and his team of scientists at Facebook are interested in many of the same underlying questions that academic social scientists want to study, and the collaboration is an effective way to tackle those tough research problems.

2. Do you think your findings would have been fundamentally different if you had scraped data?

What access to the universe of data provides is the ability to detect very small influences that are important because of the massive scale at which they operate. For example, the paper we published in Nature shows how behavior can spread through a social network and that our behavior is affected by the influences our friends receive. The amplitude of each individual influence is small, but the overall effect is massive because of the hundreds of friends we have and the millions of active Facebook users. These small effects would have been impossible to identify without “Big Data” even though the processes at work would be present.  We are also able to make broader generalizations about our results due to the access we have, whereas conclusions must be more circumscribed from research using scraped data because of the multitude of ways in which a small, potentially non-random sample of users may not be representative of the larger population of users on a site.

3. Your personal research has focused on how people behaved differently in battleground states? What were your findings?

I find that people living in battleground, or politically competitive, states are more likely to discuss politics online, and are more likely to do so emotionally than are people who live in less competitive states. These effects appear only in the most intense part of the campaign season, in the weeks leading up to the campaign. I also show that this increased propensity to talk about politics on Facebook explains part of the effect we observe that a higher proportion of people living in battleground states clicked on the “I Voted” button that Facebook displayed on election day in 2008.

4. What do you think social data can tell us about how people are influenced when it comes to politics?

The pace at which we are confirming processes we’ve observed in the offline world—as well as learning new things–about social influence from studies using online social data is really incredible. We are demonstrating that people are more influenced by people with whom they have closer “real world” relationships, and we’re identifying the most influential people in networks. We’re figuring out why some memes are more likely to spread than others, and thus what kind of memes are likely to have the largest influence on our attitudes. We’re able to characterize people’s political ideologies based on their patterns of behavior on social media, and will be able to look at the differences in influence from those we agree with versus those we don’t.

5. What are you interested in researching next?

I’m very interested in the process of how contention and disagreement affect people’s attitudes toward—and participation in—the political realm. My research moving forward is looking at particularly controversial policy debates, such as that over the Affordable Care Act, to see how the context in which people talk about the policy affects their rhetoric and attitudes toward it. I’m also interested in iterated online discussions instead of single expressions of attitudes in status messages.

Thanks to Jaime for participating in the interview! You can check out her fellow Big Boulder panelist’s data story with Sherry Emery of UIC, studying social data and smoking cessation. Click more to see previous data stories! 

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