How digital design shapes political participation: A natural experiment with social information

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Political behaviour increasingly takes place on digital platforms, where people are presented with a range of social information—real-time feedback about the behaviour of peers and reference groups—which can stimulate (or depress) participation. This social information is hypothesized to impact the distribution of political activity, stimulating participation in mobilizations that are increasing in popularity, and depressing participation in those that appear to be less popular, leading to a non-normal distribution. Changes to these platforms can generate natural experiments allowing for an estimate of the impact of different kinds of social information on participation. This paper tests the hypothesis that social information shapes the distribution of political mobilizations by examining the introduction of trending information to the homepage of the UK government petition platform. The introduction of the trending feature did not increase the overall number of signatures per day, but the distribution of signatures across petitions changed significantly—the most popular petitions gained more signatures at the expense of those with fewer signatories. We further find significant differences between petitions trending at different ranks on the homepage. This evidence suggests that the ubiquity of trending information on digital platforms is introducing instability into political markets, as has been shown for cultural markets. As well as highlighting the importance of digital design in shaping political behaviour, the findings suggest that a non-negligible group of individuals visit the homepage of the site looking for petitions to sign, without having decided the issues they wish to support in advance. These ‘aimless petitioners’ are particularly susceptible to changes in social information.




Hale, S. A., John, P., Margetts, H., & Yasseri, T. (2018). How digital design shapes political participation: A natural experiment with social information. PLoS ONE, 13(4).

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