Questions arising from “Hidden networks of [Democratic] suburban women”

Continuing the attention paid to suburban voters in the upcoming 2020 election, one article examines groups of suburban women with political goals:

Ohio, a former swing state, has moved swiftly to the right since President Donald Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016; Republicans have dominated, save for Democrat Sherrod Brown’s 300,000-vote Senate win in 2018. Yet, brewing in these red counties, from Geauga in the north to Warren in the south, is a contrasting rally cry: Ohio is a swing state, and suburban women who were often previously politically inert will be the ones to make it such in 2020. This is not the same crowd as the women’s marches or Indivisible groups that sprouted in 2017, and their rhetoric doesn’t have the sharp edge of Trump’s fiercest critics. Many have kept their nascent activities hidden on private Facebook groups and invite-only events, only to emerge for 2020 as a new network — unconnected to any campaign or party, but designed to boost Ohio Democrats’ flagging fortunes here.

These groups range from the Organized Progressives Standing United (OPSU) and the Bay Village Nasty Women to the Progressive Women in Westerville and Positively Blue in Dublin. The OPSU had 20 members when Julie Womack, 51, of Mason, Ohio, joined it in November 2018. Now, it has 500. In September 2019, a few months after leaving a left-leaning media job in Washington, D.C., Paris launched Red, Wine & Blue, a statewide network of blue-leaning women (and some men) pushing for higher political involvement in 12 suburban Ohio counties. A dozen groups have since joined her network…

The women often worry about drawing too much heat in communities where they have felt politically isolated. “Democrat is a dirty word down here,” says Womack, whose group was “secret” when she joined it but is now public. She sees OPSU’s rapid growth as a mirror of her own need for political outspokenness — especially in Warren County, which went for Republican Gov. Mike DeWine by 36 percentage points in 2018. “I’m at the point in my life now that I just don’t care. To label yourself a Democrat or a progressive [here], you’re going to feel ganged-up upon. You’ll stand out.”…

It might not be enough, suggests Richard Perloff, a professor of political media and communication at Cleveland State University who believes that the narrative of suburban women turning Ohio blue in 2020 may be “overly optimistic.”

Three quick thoughts:

1. By virtue of being hidden, private, or less public with their activities, it is hard to know how many such groups exist. And how many groups are on the opposite side of the political aisle?

2. Another angle to this could be a need more Americans feel to keep their personal politics quieter or at a simmering level until an opportunity (like an election or a threat of war) comes. This approach could be more popular for a number of reasons: more divisive public rhetoric, animosity toward outspoken political comments, limited support for political minorities, a decrease in confidence in and participation in traditional voluntary associations. This could help contribute to increased difficulty in using public opinion polls to predict elections. (A possible flip side to this: each private group can operate more independently without being beholden to a larger organization. And suburbanites may care about national politics but they like local control.)

3. Where are there public spaces in Ohio and other states where people can gather to talk about politics and other matters relating to community life? The missing third places or public spaces featuring regular mixing of people mean more activity and conversation takes place in private spaces or by invitation and planning rather than through spontaneity or a regular presence in a particular location.

Sociology experiment shows how parties can flip positions

Cass Sunstein describes a sociology study that could help explain how attachment to a political party can lead to divergent political positions:

Here’s how the experiment worked. All participants (consisting of thousands of people) were initially asked whether they identified with Republicans or Democrats. They were then divided into 10 groups. In two of them, participants were asked what they thought about 20 separate issues — without seeing the views of either political party on those issues. This was the “independence condition.” In the eight other groups, participants could see whether Republicans or Democrats were more likely to agree with a position. This was the “influence condition.”

In the influence condition, each participant was asked his own view, which was used to update the relative level of support of each party. That updated level was displayed, in turn, to the next participant in the same group.

The authors carefully selected issues on which people would not be likely to begin with strong convictions along party lines. For example: “Companies should be taxed in the countries where they are headquartered rather than in the countries where their revenues are generated.” And, “The exchange of cryptocurrencies (such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin) should be banned in the United States.” Or this: “Artificial intelligence software should be used to detect online blackmailing on email systems.”

The authors hypothesized that in the influence condition, it would be especially hard to predict where Republicans and Democrats would end up. If the early Republican participants in one group ended up endorsing a position, other Republicans would be more likely to endorse it as well — and Democrats would be more likely to reject it. But if the early Republicans rejected it, other Republicans would reject it as well — and Democrats would endorse it.

And the findings:

Across groups, Democrats and Republicans often flipped positions, depending on what the early voters did. On most of the 20 issues, Democrats supported a position in at least one group but rejected it in at least one other, and the same was true of Republicans. As the researchers put it, “Chance variation in a small number of early movers” can have major effects in tipping large populations — and in getting both Republicans and Democrats to embrace a cluster of views that actually have nothing to do with each other.

This seems like a good reminder regarding humans: attachments to groups are very important. When faced with taking in information, what the groups we identify with matters. This is the case even in an age where we would claim to be individuals.

Studying social change more broadly is a difficult task. It is perhaps easiest to see large-scale change after it has already happened and observers can look back and pick out a path by which society changed. It can be quite hard to see social change as it is occurring when it is unclear what exactly is happening or in which direction a trend line will go. It can also be difficult to see changes that did not take off or trends that did not go very far.

Facebook as a replacement for the community formerly found in church and Little League

In a recent speech in Chicago, Zuckerberg explained his vision for Facebook:

Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook groups to play an important role that community groups like churches and Little League teams used to perform: Bringing communities together…

“It’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter,” he said during a rally for Facebook users who’ve built large community-support groups on the site. “That’s a lot of of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.”

He added, “People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.”…

“A church doesn’t just come together. It has a pastor who cares for the well-being of their congregation, makes sure they have food and shelter. A little league team has a coach who motivates the kids and helps them hit better. Leaders set the culture, inspire us, give us a safety net, and look out for us.”

One of the best things about the Internet and social media is that it allows people with specific interests to find each other in ways that can be difficult offline. Yet, it is less clear that these online groups can be full substitutes for offline social groups. A few specific questions about this based on what Zuckerberg said:

  1. It can be interesting to ask about the purpose of religious groups: how much are they about religious activities versus social activities? The answer might depend on whether one is a person of faith or not or an insider or outsider to such groups.
  2. Religious groups are unique in that they are often focused on a transcendent being. Other social groups often have an external focus but not quite the same kind. Is a Facebook group focusing on the same kind of thing as a religious group?
  3. Zuckerberg is hinting at the need humans have for social and spiritual connection. Can such spiritual connection be filled in an online setting in the ways that it occurs offline?
  4. Zuckerberg is right about the decline in civic membership but can this trend be easily reversed? For example, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone points to a whole host of factors (from suburbanization to television watching) that led to this. If people are willing to join online communities in large numbers, is this because these communities offer different requirements than civic groups?

A reminder: this is not a new development. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been clear from early on about his goals to use the platform to bring people together. See an earlier post about this here.

Gov’t report on declining civic life

A new government report summarizes a number of findings regarding the declining sociability of Americans:

What Lee is concerned about documenting is that this middle layer is thinning. Fewer Americans are getting married or living in families. We are going to religious services less often, and are less likely to consider ourselves members of a religious organization. We’re spending less time socializing with neighbors and co-workers, too. Voting rates have declined, and we’ve grown less likely to pay attention to news about government. We trust one another less: The percentage of Americans who thought most people could be trusted fell to 31 percent in 2016 from 46 percent in 1972, the report says, citing the General Social Survey.

There are some exceptions to the pattern. Rates of volunteering have increased. Some kinds of political engagement have also risen: The percentage of the population that reports having tried to influence someone else’s vote has gone up over the last few decades. The overall story, though, is one of fewer and weaker interpersonal connections among Americans. We are building less “social capital.”

Conservatives have historically been especially concerned about associational life, although they used different terms in prior eras, such as “civil society” and “mediating institutions.” These organizations both ensured the survival of worthwhile traditions and protected the individual from the state. It was no accident, conservatives thought, that totalitarian states ruthlessly suppressed all independent groups, even apolitical ones. And conservatives worried that even benign welfare states tended to displace social groups by taking over their functions.

Scott Winship, research director for Lee’s project, emphasizes a less ideological explanation for the trends the report describes: “We used to need our neighbors and our fellow church congregants more, for instance, for various forms of assistance, such as child care or financial help. Today we are better able to purchase child care on the market and to access credit and insurance. Freed from these materialist needs, we have narrowed our social circles to family and friends, with whom social interaction is easier — especially thanks to the Internet — and more natural. But the wider social connections filled other, non-materialist needs too, and those have been casualties of rising affluence.” The collateral damage, for many people, has been a loss of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

This is not news to sociologists and others who have viewed the trends for a few decades now. For example, see Bowling Alone. But, perhaps it is more interesting now to consider what kind of society we will have if more Americans are not involved with social groups, tend to retreat to private spaces, and don’t trust institutions. I’m sure some would say we are already at this point with the Trump era at hand but it could both get worse as well as possibly settle into some sort of agreement to leave each other alone.

High schools with larger student bodies, more academic freedom more likely to have cliques

A new sociology study suggests two factors influence whether cliques and segregated groups form in high schools:

Cliques form because people are often attracted to people of the same race, class, gender, and age as themselvesthis is not a novel idea, and in sociology, this concept is called homophily (“love of the same”). But Daniel McFarland, an education professor at Stanford and the lead author of the study, discovered that this tendency to segregate is much more prevalent in large schools and schools that provide students with more academic freedom. A news release about the study explains: “Schools that offer students more choicemore elective courses, more ways to complete requirements, a bigger range of potential friends, more freedom to select seats in a classroomare more likely to be rank-ordered, cliquish, and segregated.”…

The researchers used two datasets for the study: one to examine friendships on the classroom level, and the other to explore schoolwide relationships. The classroom-level dataset compared two extremely different schools. One was a traditional, tracked, Midwestern high school made up of mostly white students. The other was a magnet school in a “distressed” neighborhood of a large city that was diverse along racial and economic lines, but “homogenous in achievement.”…

McFarland and his team found that, in contrast with the larger more flexible schools, schools with a more rigid academic atmosphere usually fostered friendships based on intellectual interests and common activities. (This was true both on the classroom level and on a school-wide level.) Throughout the study, large schools are often equated with less rigid schools, because most of these more stringent institutions were private schools, and thus were smaller…

The takeaway, McFarland said, is that “the way we organize schools will have repercussions” for students’ interpersonal relationships. Teachers and administrators may think they cannot influence their students’ social fabric, but they can. Schools can “indirectly direct” the way that social networks form, by providing more or fewer choices for students. This influence can be used to promote student friendships across intellectual or academic commonalities, rather than external traits. McFarland thinks this knowledge can be used for the better: By designing schools that encourage students to associate based on common interests, we can avoid “creating boundaries that correspond with inequities that already exist in society.”

In other words, giving students more choices – whether of potential relationships or between classes – allows them to form or join groups in the ways that many people do: along existing race/ethnicity and social class lines. Of course, students are likely to lobby for more choices as might their parents because (1) choice is often seen as a good in itself in American society and education and (2) high school is viewed as a place where students should be making more of their own choices and expressing independence. Yet, it sounds like structures can constrain them in certain ways for their own good.

It would be interesting to know the long-term consequences of being in more constrained high schools. Once students hit college or leave the education system, do they revert back to cliques or is there some lasting effect of these structures?

Studies confirm human tendency to follow the crowd

Some recent studies again show that humans are influenced by crowds:

In fact, recent studies suggest that our sensitivity to crowds is built into our perceptual system and operates in a remarkably swift and automatic way. In a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, A.C. Gallup, then at Princeton University, and colleagues looked at the crowds that gather in shopping centers and train stations.

In one study, a few ringers simply joined the crowd and stared up at a spot in the sky for 60 seconds. Then the researchers recorded and analyzed the movements of the people around them. The scientists found that within seconds hundreds of people coordinated their attention in a highly systematic way. People consistently stopped to look toward exactly the same spot as the ringers.

The number of ringers ranged from one to 15. People turn out to be very sensitive to how many other people are looking at something, as well as to where they look. Individuals were much more likely to follow the gaze of several people than just a few, so there was a cascade of looking as more people joined in.

In a new study in Psychological Science, Timothy Sweeny at the University of Denver and David Whitney at the University of California, Berkeley, looked at the mechanisms that let us follow a crowd in this way. They showed people a set of four faces, each looking in a slightly different direction. Then the researchers asked people to indicate where the whole group was looking (the observers had to swivel the eyes on a face on a computer screen to match the direction of the group)…

If you try the experiment, you can barely be sure of what you saw at all. But in fact, people were amazingly accurate. Somehow, in that split-second, they put all the faces together and worked out the average direction where the whole group was looking.

In other studies, Dr. Whitney has shown that people can swiftly calculate how happy or sad a crowd is in much the same way.

Humans are social creatures. This can be hard to remember within societies and time periods when individualism is stressed and people think of themselves as above group behavior. Of course, group behavior varies quite a bit given the context but we often go along with the crowd.

Can Wikipedia rally the common good to improve?

MIT Technology Review gives an overview of the troubles at Wikipedia and how the limited group behind the website wants to improve it:

Yet Wikipedia and its stated ambition to “compile the sum of all human knowledge” are in trouble. The volunteer workforce that built the project’s flagship, the English-language Wikipedia—and must defend it against vandalism, hoaxes, and manipulation—has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and is still shrinking. Those participants left seem incapable of fixing the flaws that keep Wikipedia from becoming a high-quality encyclopedia by any standard, including the project’s own. Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-­ranking quality scores.

The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

In response, the Wikimedia Foundation, the 187-person nonprofit that pays for the legal and technical infrastructure supporting Wikipedia, is staging a kind of rescue mission. The foundation can’t order the volunteer community to change the way it operates. But by tweaking Wikipedia’s website and software, it hopes to steer the encyclopedia onto a more sustainable path…

Whether that can happen depends on whether enough people still believe in the notion of online collaboration for the greater good—the ideal that propelled Wikipedia in the beginning. But the attempt is crucial; Wikipedia matters to many more people than its editors and students who didn’t make time to read their assigned books. More of us than ever use the information found there, both directly and via other services. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has either killed off the alternatives or pushed them down the Google search results. In 2009 Microsoft closed Encarta, which was based on content from several storied encyclopedias. Encyclopaedia Britannica, which charges $70 a year for online access to its 120,000 articles, offers just a handful of free entries plastered with banner and pop-up ads.

So if Wikipedia was created by a collective, can it be saved by a collective? The story goes on to describe a common process for human groups: as they grow and over time, they tend to take on bureaucratic tendencies which then make it more difficult to change course.

The larger question may be whether modern humans can regularly pursue the common good on the Internet. If it can’t be done on Wikipedia, what other hope is there? The average comments section at a major news website? Reddit? YouTube? Are we at the point when we can say that big corporations have “won” the Internet?