Your social network is contagious

An interesting article in the science journal Nature lays out how social networks are essentially gerrymandered to the extent that who we follow online and what Facebook Groups we are in can filter out dissent and bias our perception that one candidate is more popular than another, or that everybody shares my passion for Issue X.

This is another way of thinking about the information bubbles we inhabit online and how we tend to follow the herd when forming opinions.

The article is titled Information gerrymandering in social networks skews collective decision-making, by Carl T. Bergstrom. Thank you to my friend John De Montfort for sharing it with me.

Figure 1 | Social-network structure affects voters’ perceptions. In these social networks, ten individuals favor orange and eight favor blue. Each individual has four reciprocal social connections. a, In this random network, eight individuals correctly infer from their contacts’ preferences that orange is more popular, eight infer a draw and only two incorrectly infer that blue is more popular. b, When individuals largely interact with like-minded individuals, filter bubbles arise in which all individuals believe that their party is the most popular. Voting gridlock is more likely in such situations, because no one recognizes a need to compromise. c, Stewart et al.1 describe ‘information gerrymandering’, in which the network structure skews voters’ perceptions about others’ preferences. Here, two-thirds of voters mistakenly infer that blue is more popular. This is because blue proponents strategically influence a small number of orange-preferring individuals, whereas orange proponents squander their influence on like-minded individuals who have exclusively orange-preferring contacts, or on blue-preferring individuals who have enough blue-preferring contacts to remain unswayed.

After Trump was elected, conservatives who had been connected to me on Facebook started posting pro-Trump memes and challenging my political posts. I didn’t want to debate them. And I certainly didn’t want to see anything that was gloating, ignorant, or xenophobic in my Facebook feed. So, I de-friended virtually every conservatives “friend” on Facebook. This purge included a couple of cousins and former neighbors.

Over two years I added about 500 new Facebook friends answering friend requests, mostly all Virginia Democrats. I am the boy who created his own bubble.

My tribe today consists of friends in grassroots activists group like Indivisible Winchester and other Indivisible groups, Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool in Jefferson County WV, Virginians Against the Pipelines, and Our Revolution Groups, local Democrats in Clarke and Frederick counties, and of course my old friends who I have known a long time and appreciate for their wooly-haired liberal values.

I discovered Blue Virginia and appreciate Lowell Feld more than he realizes. Thank you, Lowell, for years and years of fighting the good fight and never quitting.

Think about the Facebook Pages you have liked, the Facebook groups you have joined, the magazines you read, the websites you bookmark, the people you follow on Twitter. However you get your news and opinion these days, you’ve very likely gerrymandered yourself into oblivion. You don’t get enough of other points of view, including opinions from people in your area of the spectrum but may dialed farther left or farther center than you. If you are on the Right, God help you, because you are likely living behind an iron mask instead of in a plastic bubble.

I would like Virginia Thunderdome Politics to be a safe space on the Left where we can debate candidates and issues that impact Virginia. We do some of that to be sure, but I also know we lost at a couple of dozen people over the past two years who I would describe as “Democratic Establishment friendly” or Democratic centerists. They came into Thunderdome, didn’t like being challenged, got frustrated, felt outnumbered and promptly left. There are others that maybe stay silent because they want to observe but not debate. Other Facebook groups are uncomfortable with debate and quickly tamp it down. But Thunderdome, if you follow the rules of conduct, invites fierce discussion and sharing of content. How else are we going to learn and test our beliefs?

We are now officially in the season of the 2020 presidential primaries. I worry about the filter bubble I’m in. Because of how I get my information through groups and select news outlets, I perceive that most people think Joe Biden has cognitive issues and could get trounced by Trump. Bernie can’t win the primary. Mayor Pete has no chance, but maybe will be great in some future run, Kamala Harris is fading, and Elizabeth Warren is everbody’s favorite. But what’s the reality? How can I tell if the social contagion is affecting me and I want to leap on the Elizabeth Warren Band Wagon because I’m seeing all orange dots when in reality there are a bunch of blue dots too but not in my self-created social gerrymander? I’m only human and can be swayed by my network. I liked Jay Inslee, but embraced the conventional wisdom that he was fading and so I let him sink from my view. And low and behold he dropped out. I read Pete Buttigieg’s book and have watched several video recordings of him talking at forums, and he is my top pick. Should I just not worry about it? Should I stay silent so as not to upset my friends who are Bernie fans, or Warren, Biden, Harris, Castro, Booker fans? If I stay silent, maybe I am making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, they are all decent choices and if they polls are to be believed any of them will beat Trump. Should I not worry about it? Or should I worry that a weaker candidate could actually lose…and I’m not sure our Democracy could survive another Trump term.

Perhaps the most disconcerting idea I have gotten from this article is the that there are NOT a majority of people in Virginia who support stopping the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. That not all Democrats want to see corporations like Dominion Energy lose their power over the legislature and executive branch. I just assume most people are like me, because that’s the contagion I expose myself to every day. I get angry when I see photos of destruction from the pipelines’ path. I pump my fist with every candidate endorsement from Virginia Justice Democrats. I am inspired by activists who fight the Power, by standing outside of Democrat fund raisers with flyers on their issues, my issues. I stand with them. I want to break down the walls of ICE facilities and expose the network of patronage and money that keeps so many lawmakers silent and complicit.

But to flip the script. It’s not that I should worry about my network biasing me. I should double down on my efforts to be the change I seek. To be the contagion that breaks down conventional wisdom and lets them believe in change. Sharing is caring. Being loud and consistent on social media can move the herd. If more people revealed how they believe and shared information, it could only help.

Be an idea virus and infect your friends.

Ideas are viruses.

If you don’t participate in discussion threads, and push back and challenge people, you are just further narrowing your field of vision. And the only signal you will receive is the constant thrumming of the message: “Relax. You really can’t change the system.”

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