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The Social Network Illusion That Could Turn This Election on Its Head

A study of the social networks between political donors suggests a new and fairer way of increasing campaign donations.

With election fever sweeping the U.S., the issue of campaign donations is as contentious as ever. One thing is always true in U.S. politics: “no money, no campaign,” so the search for new and bigger sources of income is hugely important for all candidates.  One relatively neglected angle in the debate is what light science can throw on the issue.

Today we get a unique insight thanks to the work of Vincent Traag at the Leiden University in the Netherlands. Traag is a specialist in the properties of complex networks.  He has studied the structure of the social network between donors and discovered how it influences the way people make payments to candidates.

The answer is somewhat unexpected. Traag says that a famous social network illusion implies that politicians can collect more by targeting people who are relatively difficult to recruit rather than the easy picks. And this could have dramatic implications for politics.

Traag begins with data gathered by a website called LittleSis, set up by the Public Accountability Initiative. This gathers data from the Federal Election Committee about donations from individuals to political candidates. The site also collects other information about donors, such as the positions people hold in businesses, where they were educated, what organizations they are members of. It also tracks family, social, and other professional links.

In total, LittleSis has data on 120,000 individuals who are together members of over 40,000 organizations, such as businesses, universities, clubs, and so on. It shows who donated, when, and by how much.

This data has allowed Traag to build a network of links between these individuals—a kind of Facebook of political donors. And because each donation is time-stamped, he can calculate how the process of donation spreads through the network like a virus.

Network theorists know that direct links are an important factor in the spread of everything from disease to gossip. But less well understood is the effect of indirect links across a network—clearly a virus cannot spread via a long-distance telephone call or a group e-mail, but gossip certainly can. So what of political donations—how contagious is this behavior?

Traag attempts to tease this issue apart by distinguishing between two different kinds of links. The first is direct links between people who are members of the same family for example.  It’s no surprise that these kinds of links increase the likelihood of somebody making a donation. “A person exposed to a single donor is 1.7 times more likely to donate than a person not exposed to any donor,” says Traag, adding that exposure to more donors increases this effect with diminishing returns. (The effects are the same for Democrats and Republicans.)

But the effect of weaker, indirect links is much more surprising. These are links between people in different communities who do not otherwise have a direct link, such as those who went to the same university or who used to work for the same company or are members of the organization and so on.

That distinction allows an interesting form of analysis. Traag asks how the likelihood of a person donating depends on the number of direct connections he or she has to other donors in the network. But he also asks how the likelihood of donation depends on the number of indirect links to other communities.

The answer is something of a surprise. Traag says that weak links to other communities have an even bigger influence on donation behavior. “Exposure to a single donor community makes donation 2.27 times more likely,” he says.

That has significant implications for the way candidates should target donors. Clearly donation behavior is most contagious when individuals experience it among their nearest and dearest and at the same time see evidence of it in more distant communities, such as among business colleagues and so on. “Contagion is especially likely after multiple exposures from different communities or from different types of sources (e.g. family, friends, business partners),” says Traag.

This may be because of an increasingly well-known social-network illusion—that people infer something is popular when they observe that people like it who are both close and distant. However, this is an illusion—it is not possible to infer this status across the whole network from such a sample.

Nevertheless, this “majority illusion” suggests a strategy for maximizing campaign donations. Traag points out that the number of communities that have donated to a candidate is significantly predictive of total fund-raising capabilities, whereas the number of donors is not. “Our findings suggest that appealing to constituencies of diverse backgrounds may actually aid in diffusing support through networks,” he says.

That means targeting people who are generally more difficult to recruit. This group may be less willing to donate in general, but the few who do will have a proportionately greater effect on the rest so that the overall effect is greater.

That’s an idea that could turn politics on its head. It suggests that politicians could garner support by targeting a wide range of different communities, not just a small number of similar ones.  “Rather than addressing narrow interests and petty concerns, politicians should appeal to the general population and the greater good,” says Traag.         

Imagine that—a political system that targets the general population and the greater good! A dangerous idea, if ever there was one.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1601.07679 : Complex Contagion of Campaign Donations

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