Measuring “contagion” effect of political donations using LittleSis data

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Vincent Traag, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands, recently used the LittleSis database to track how decisions to donate to political candidates spread through social networks.

From the MIT Technology Review:

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 says that weak links to other communities have an even bigger influence on donation behavior [than direct links, such as between family members].

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.

Traag concluded that “appealing to constituencies of diverse backgrounds may actually aid in diffusing support through networks.”

“Rather than addressing narrow interests and petty concerns, politicians should appeal to the general population and the greater good,” Traag told MIT Technology Review.

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