Social Citizens: How Peer Networks Influence Elections

Social Citizens: How Peer Networks Influence Elections


When you walk into a voting booth in less than a week to vote for the future president of the United States, you'll be all by yourself making a very personal decision - right? Betsy Sinclair, a political scientist and author of The Social Citizen: Peer Networks and Political Behaviorbelieves that in reality, politics is often more social than personal. Here she discusses the place of Facebook, YouTube, and face-to-face interactions in political decision-making, and explains how social science experiments reveal the true importance of social networks in politics. 



Claire Navarro (host): It’s less than a week until the 2016 presidential election. After months of debates and ads and speeches and scandals, it’s time to choose a president. Whether you’re planning to vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or a third party candidate, what happens in the voting booth is personal. It’s just you and the ballot. Or at least, that’s how we usually think about elections.

Betsy Sinclair (guest): I think we've long considered ourselves and our own democracy as one person, one vote. You think of voting or donating to a campaign or even making up your mind as an inherently individualized act. And that's really inherent in how we think about the democratic process. And I think it's wrong.

CN: Betsy Sinclair is a political scientist here at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of The Social Citizen: Peer Networks and Political Behavior. In her research, she’s found that in politics, like in so many other areas of life, people rely on each other to form opinions and make decisions.

BS: People are social creatures, and as anyone who survived junior high well knows, social pressure is a real thing. I think for every reason that perhaps you wore white socks instead of black socks all through seventh grade, your friends, family, and neighbors are going to be highly influential in your political decisions.

CN: In middle school, social pressure comes in many forms. Maybe the cool girl at school wears white socks, so everyone automatically follows her lead. Or maybe it’s more extreme, and the kids who wear the wrong socks get made fun of or ignored. Political pressure, Sinclair says, also comes in more than one flavor.

BS: When we think about what you get from your friends, you really get two kinds of things. You get trusted information. So there's got to be someone who you know who knows a lot about politics and you can probably ask them, "Hey, I'm having a hard time with my sample ballot. Can you help me out here?"

CN: This kind of influence can be friendly and positive – a trusted source provides trusted information, and you make your own decision from there. But there’s a darker side. Like with peer pressure in middle school, politics is also shaped by a desire to fit in or avoid conflict. 

BS: People really care much more about their friends than they do about any particular policy. And so they're really willing to be flexible on those issues.

CN: This makes sense for some political issues. If you don’t think or care too much about immigration or trade, for example, it might be easiest to simply agree with the people around you rather than potentially damage a friendship by taking a stand. But Sinclair has found that social influence can have much more dramatic effects.

BS: I think the most remarkable part of this is that we think of party identification as one of our deeply entrenched social identities. If you say that you are a Republican or you are a Democrat, that's sort of the same way to feel like you are religious or you are a Cubs fan. Like a deeply entrenched identity.

CN: The idea that a Cubs fan could switch to another team seems totally crazy. You’d think that the same would be true for turning a Democrat into a Republican, maybe even more so. But social networks can and do influence people’s choice of political party. Sinclair has shown this in her work.

BS: We looked at people over a two year time horizon: people who had either diverse political networks who were friends with both Democrats and Republicans and people who had homogeneous networks for one side or the other. And then we went back two years later and asked those same people what their party identification was. What we found two years later was that a lot of the people who had been exposed to divergent political wasn't only that a few of them had switched from being Democrats to Republicans or vice versa, but that they also often times just said that they didn't know when they had answered the question before. So they probably knew, but somehow that question had become politically challenging for them I think because it was socially challenging as well. So it just becomes a little bit less acceptable. And I think we see that in the current political climate, probably now more than ever before. It's hard to be a Trump supporter in a sea of Hillary supporters and vice versa. These things are highly conflictual in our social relationships.

CN: So how does this kind of social influence actually work? In a world in which voters are bombarded with information and opinions from all sides, who is influencing whom, and how? These are some of the kinds of questions that Sinclair tries to answer. For one clue, it helps to think about a place that has become synonymous with the phrase “social network” – Facebook.

BS: I look back at this great book called "Connected" by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis. They look at Facebook and they try to figure out that if I say "I like the Decemberists!", are you going to say you like Decemberists too if we're friends on Facebook? And the answer is generically no. There is actually no influence like that whatsoever. There's only influence where you're going to follow my music taste if we're also tagged in pictures together... so if we're actually physically friends.

CN: Other studies have looked directly at political influence, asking whether online social networks can encourage people to go vote.

BS: Robert Bond in science or maybe it's nature, I forget which one, did this huge Facebook experiment where they randomly assign Facebook users to receive a little message to click to say whether or not they voted as the election day rolls out. Then other users will get a message that will tell them that either they can click the button or the number of their friends that have already clicked the "I Voted" button. This is a way to see that if my friends have voted, will I go out to turn out to vote?

CN: The quick answer is yes – people who see that their friends have voted are more likely to go vote.

BS: What is remarkable, however, is that it's only among strong friends. So people who have a history of liking each other's pages, people who are tagging each other in pictures... those are the influencers. So these weak ties that pop up where you see someone who lives across the country who you don't see regularly, who you don't know very well, really doesn't influence you.

CN: So a note for anyone who may be out there broadcasting their political opinions on Facebook, hoping to change hundreds of hearts and minds? It’s not likely that’s going to work. However you really may be influencing people in your smaller group real-life friends, even those with different opinions. For her book the Social Citizen Sinclair mainly studied these kind of face-to-face, real-life friendships and relationships. Without a bunch of data like tagged photos to automatically say who’s connected, these more traditional social networks are tricky to study. There are a couple ways to do it.   

BS: The two strategies that I most frequently employ are to conduct survey research, to ask people what their thoughts and opinions are, and to collect a large enough sample of them to be able to statistically identify patterns in the data. And the second way that I build knowledge is largely through conducting experiments. So you can think back to an early science class where perhaps some kid had two plants and one plant was listening to classical music and the other plant rock and roll and you saw which grew. We've moved well beyond that now.

CN: In place of plants, Sinclair’s experiments can involve multiple groups of people. She looks for groups of people who already know one another – like friends, neighbors, or in the following case, families.

BS: In an ongoing project with Christopher Mann, we have been looking at households where we see multiple voters registered at the same address who share a last name. And we are particularly interested in households with three registered voters where there's a big age difference between them. We're hoping to capture the parent-child relationships. We send a message to the one person in that pair asking them to go vote early.

CN: From there, Sinclair and her team can see whether or not the message had any effects. 

BS: Whether or not you vote, not for whom you vote for, but whether or not you vote is a matter of public record. And so we can look that up and the timing of the ballot data is also recorded. Then we see if that spills over to the second person in the household. We'd like to know if the timing data is really close together...if they're carpooling, if the timing data is really far apart. But in this group that's getting the stimulus, if we see the second person voting more than in the group that's held out, the group that is actually receiving no mailer, that's a nice example where we're pretty sure that people in that same household know each other. And then we can have a nice record of an outcome variable.

CN: Sinclair has also looked at other public records, like campaign donations over $200, to see how friends and neighbors influence each other to give money to candidates. She’s shown that these kinds of personal interactions, between family and friends, have dramatic effects on political behavior. Going forward, she’s turning her attention more and more to online communities.

BS: The things that I've been really interested in this election cycle have to do in new media, because that is what my current research is on. So one of the things that has been really interesting to think about is, where is there evidence of deliberation? And where do you see people engaging with new media in a meaningful way? So can you see evidence that people are talking to other people online about politics in a way that just isn't vitriol? Can you see any evidence of any kind of political engagement? And so with the Clinton and the Trump campaign, the thing that I've done which is pretty simple is just to collect systematically the comments on YouTube videos where most of the time, the language that people are using to write comments on YouTube videos is pretty unpleasant. But what I think is encouraging is you oftentimes see strangers engaging in some kind of debate and sometimes repeatedly so.

CN: Right now, compared to face-to-face social interactions, the influence that happens on YouTube is a drop in the bucket. Just 2% of people talk to strangers online about politics. But with more and more of us online all the time, that could change.

BS: It's an interesting idea to think about how has the world changed over the last decade. It's like strangers can go online into this public forum and talk about political ideals. And they often do it in a really horrible way. But they do it. They're talking about politics and that's kind of encouraging and also kind of terrible.

CN: Because a lot of the information floating around out there is false, or misleading. On YouTube it’s easier to brush off these kind of statements, but that can be harder when they’re coming from your friends.

BS: One of the real important things of the liberal arts education is to figure out what is a trusted source and how do you look something up. I don't think that, however, the wrong arguments or the informational bits are what is driving either candidate choice or party identification... the decision to turn out to vote. That doesn't seem to be the way in which people are actually forming their opinion. They're really relying upon their friends to make these decisions. So it can just be a persuasive statement, wrong or right, it doesn't matter much. It matters who said it.

CN: So please, in this final push before election day, use your influence wisely. Social pressure doesn’t always have to be bad. Friends and family do make a difference.

BS: The things where I think there are really important reasons to talk to your friends about politics or for instances like voting, where any one vote doesn't really matter is that it's not going to make a difference. But collectively, you make a huge difference and you could think it probably matters more to talk to your closest friends and your actual family about the importance of voting than it does to cast a vote yourself.

CN: So, remember to vote this Tuesday, November 8 – and ask your friends to vote, too.

Thank you so much to Betsy Sinclair for joining Hold That Thought. You can hear all of our past episodes on our website,, where you can also find links to subscribe. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening.