Archive | IT and politics

Romney’s Candidacy has Piqued Curiosity about Mormons: Evidence from Google Searches

This is a guest post from political scientists Donald Green and Daniel Butler.


Throughout most of American history, the major parties’ presidential nominees have been belonged to mainline Protestant denominations.  Only two Catholics – Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 – and one Greek Orthodox – Michael Dukakis in 1988 – have won their party’s nomination.  This year marks the first time a major political party has nominated a Mormon candidate, Mitt Romney.

Opinion polls conducted prior to 2012 suggest that the average American is unfamiliar with Mormons and the Mormon religion.  Last November, 50% of the adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that they did not personally know any Mormons, and 49% said they knew “nothing at all” or “not very much” about the Mormon religion.

Indeed, the fact that Romney himself is Mormon has only gradually seeped into the public’s consciousness during the past year.  Last November, only 39% of the public could correctly identify Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation as Mormon.  By the end of June, this number rose to 51%.

One interesting feature of the Romney candidacy is that it seems to be piquing voters’ curiosity about Mormons.  Consider, for example, the frequency with which the search term “Mormon” is plugged into the Google search engine.  Using Google Trends, we plotted the volume of weekly searches in the United States for the terms “Mormon” and “Romney” from 2004 to the present.[1] Searches for “Mormon” or “Romney” remained relatively constant from 2004 to 2007.  In late 2007 and early 2008, Romney campaigned in the GOP presidential primary, and both search terms enjoyed a brief upward bump.  When Romney dropped out of the race in early 2008, the use of these search terms subsided and remained flat until 2011.  When Romney declared his current bid for the presidency in June of 2011, searches for “Mormon” soared and remained high as he won the battle for nomination in the first half of 2012.  As we enter the fall of 2012, searches for “Mormon” have reached at an all-time high.  The search term is currently five times more popular than it was in 2010.


Might the surge in “Mormon” searches reflect something other than the Romney candidacy?  Perhaps people are looking for tickets to the Broadway show Book of Mormon?  It’s possible, but other evidence points to a link to the Romney candidacy.Let’s take a closer look at Google searches during the GOP nomination battle, focusing our attention on the period before April 10th, when Rick Santorum exited the race.   The Y-axis shows the volume of searches (weighted by each state’s population), and the X-axis shows how close a state is to holding its primary election.  The pattern shows that as Election Day nears, residents of states holding elections become more likely to search for “Romney” and for “Mormon.”  After the election, searches subside.

The bottom line is that politics plays a pedagogic function.  It is sometimes quipped that foreign policy crises cause Americans to become acquainted with world geography.  In much the same vein, the nomination of a presidential candidate with a Mormon religious background has prompted vast numbers of Americans to seek out information about this religion and its adherents.

[1] One feature of the data from Google Trends is that the volume of searches is given in relative terms as scaled by Google. The scaled volume ranges between 0 and 100 with 100 representing the highest amount of search volume. The other values reflect the search volume relative to that high-water mark.  The scale used here is relative to searches for “Republican.”

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New App for Gauging Reactions to the Debates

In collaboration with political scientists Amber Boydstun (University of California, Davis) and Rebecca Glazier (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), and Matthew Pietryka (University of California, Davis), React Labs is planning an educational package for use by instructors during one or more of the presidential or vice-presidential debates in October.

React Labs™ is a new platform for real-time polling.  It runs on smartphones and allows participants to register their in-the-moment reactions to what candidates are saying during a debate, using button taps (e.g. Agree and Disagree), and answering pre- and post-debate survey questions (e.g. partisanship, issue priorities, demographics), as well as questions throughout the event (e.g. “How do you feel about Obama?”).

More information is here.

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What the Chinese Government Worries About

A new paper by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts.

The size and sophistication of the Chinese government’s program to selectively censor the expressed views of the Chinese people is unprecedented in recorded world history. … In this paper, we show that this program, designed to limit freedom of speech of Chinese citizens, paradoxically also exposes an extraordinarily rich source of information about the Chinese government’s interests, intentions, and goals — a subject of longstanding interest to the scholarly and policy communities. … Our central theoretical finding is that, contrary to much research and commentary, the purpose of the censorship program is not to supress criticism of the state or the Party. Indeed, despite widespread censorship of social media, we find that when the Chinese people write scathing criticisms of their government and its leaders, the probability that their post will be censored does not increase. Instead, we find that the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any localized social movements are in evidence or expected. We demonstrate these points and then discuss their far-reaching implications for the state, civil society, political control, and the economy.
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The political science of the Internet

A few months ago, I posted a draft article on Politics and the Internet that was forthcoming in the Annual Review of Political Science. The final version is now out, and available (via a paywall passthrough: let me know if you are a non-academic reader and this doesn’t work for you) here – with acknowledgment to Monkey Cage readers for helpful suggestions. Again, thanks.

Political scientists are only now beginning to come to terms with the importance of the Internet to politics. The most promising way to study the Internet is to look at the role that causal mechanisms such as the lowering of transaction costs, homophilous sorting, and preference falsification play in intermediating between specific aspects of the Internet and political outcomes. This will allow scholars to disentangle the relevant causal relationships and contribute to important present debates over whether the Internet exacerbates polarization in the United States, and whether social media helped pave the way toward the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Over time, ever fewer political scientists are likely to study the Internet as such, as it becomes more and more a part of everyday political life. However, integrating the Internet’s effects with present debates over politics, and taking proper advantage of the extraordinary data that it can provide, requires good causal arguments and attention to their underlying mechanisms.
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Death Star? No thank you.

I wish to address the most important policy question of the millenium: should we build a Death Star?  This debate picked up this year after some Lehigh University students estimated that just the steel for a Death Star would cost $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the current GDP of the Earth. Kevin Drum suggests this cost estimate is too low but, in the context of a galactic economy, a Death Star is perfectly affordable and “totally worth it.” Seth Masket and Jamelle Bouie highlight the military downside of the Death Star, suggesting that more people might rebel against the wholesale genocide of the Empire, and that the Death Star would be the prime target of any rebellion. I have two thoughts to add. First, the Death Star is a bit misunderstood. It is primarily a tool of domestic politics rather than warfare, and should be compared to alternative means of suppressing the population of a galaxy. Second, as a weapon of war, it should be compared to alternative uses of scarce defense resources. Understood properly, the Death Star is not worth it.

The Death Star and the Dictator’s Dilemma

The classic problem of representative democracy is that citizens must delegate power to leaders, and then ensure that leaders do not use that power to serve their own interests. As James Madison states, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Dictators suffer a similar problem of delegation, but in reverse. Dictators must delegate the tasks of subduing and taxing the population to internal security forces, and of maintaining external security to subordinate governors and generals.  Any delegated power, however, could be used to displace the dictator. Internal security forces can assassinate the dictator or join in palace coups. Military leaders can use their forces to rebel against the dictator or secede from the dictator’s realm with a slice of territory. So the dictator must carefully design her security apparatus to maintain control of the population without empowering potential rivals. This challenge grows acute the more dispersed the dictator’s realm and the greater the number of external threats. (For more on the strategy of dictatorship, see here. Political scientists, feel free to add citations in the comments section).

I see the Death Star (DS) as the Emperor’s solution to the dictator’s dilemma.  First, note that its construction precedes the Rebel Alliance; the plans are first developed by the Separatists in Episode 2 and, by the time it is completed, the Rebel Alliance has just won its “first victory.” While it may have some use as a deterrent against possible invaders, the DS is primarily a tool of domestic politics. Prior to its completion, the Emperor is compelled to keep the Imperial Senate around, presumably to maintain the semblance of popular consent. But the Senate imposes some inefficiency—meddling in military strategy, perhaps, or directing spending to some favored planets. Once the DS is operational, the Emperor can disband the Senate and, instead, empower Imperial governors to suppress the local population and extract revenue.  Here’s the critical scene:

But how can the Emperor guard against rebellion by one of these governors? Or revolt by a local planet’s population? The answer is simple: he can zip around in the baddest weapon in the galaxy, destroying his foes with the push of a button. No foe could fight back, and the DS is mobile enough to respond to multiple threats in short order.

Note that this scheme provides an easy answer to the question, “how can we afford a Death Star?” If the scheme works, the Death Star will pay for itself dozens of times in the additional tax revenue from fearful planets, and by the money not spent by the military putting down revolts with conventional weapons.

But will it work?  Only if it induces cooperation through fear. Every planet blown up represents a tremendous loss of potential future revenue, so like nuclear weapons today, the actual use of the DS is a calamity. Moreover, like nuclear weapons, they only work as a deterrent if they are used judiciously. citizens throughout the galaxy must believe that failure to pay their taxes and comply with their Imperial masters will lead to detonation, but also that compliance will save them. The fact that the DS was used against Alderaan, however, would likely have had the opposite effect. Alderaan is “peaceful” and “has no weapons.” It was detonated because its teenage senator was secretly aiding the Rebel Alliance and waited too long to give up Dantoonie. To me, that’s a little too Caligula to induce rational compliance. One imagines the conversations on other planets:

Peasant 1: Did you hear the Empire blew up Alderaan?  What kind of government blows up one of the richest planets in the galaxy because of one smack-talking teenager? It could be any of us next.

Peasant Windu: Enough is enough! I have had it with these [redacted] emperors on their [redacted] Death Star!

If the net effect of the DS is to make every person in the galaxy think their planet could be the next one arbitrarily destroyed, it actually mobilizes them to join the rebellion.

If the DS is an uncertain solution to the problem of internal security, what are the alternatives?

1) Democracy? Unacceptable to the seeker of unlimited power. Your faith in your friends is your weakness.

2) A Sith Academy? During the Old Republic the Jedi did a good job of providing internal security at a very low price. Why not repeal the limitation on Siths and create a small, powerful, and cheap guard of Sith lords?

This is also unacceptable. An army of Siths, however small, would be a large pool of potential rivals and assassins, all angling to seize the throne. In the end, just having one other Sith around was the Emperor’s undoing; dozens of Sith would lead to anarchy.

For this reasons, dictators have favored delegation to minions who are ineligible to replace them, such as eunuchs, lower-class citizens, foreign bodyguards, or captives from an underprivileged social group. This leads me to:

3) Upgrading the internal security apparatus.

A) Clones. The Emperor already has a military force of clones. Why not a bureaucracy of clones? They could be designed to be smart, honest, and unambitious, and they would be relatively cheap. This would help with the knotty problems of tax collection and law enforcement.

B) Domination of planetary elites. There are tried-and-true methods for gaining compliance without having to pay for massive armies or float around the galaxy in a planet-killing machine. The emperor could compel the political and economic elites of each planet to send their children (as hostages) to Imperial schools, where they will learn about all the great things the Empire is doing. Second, the Emperor could assign Imperial bodyguards to the elite of every planet to protect those who are loyal, report on those who are not, and eliminate the worst. If the Emperor followed this approach, the Organa family would be sleeping with the fishes and Alderaan would still be paying taxes.

C) Imperial takeover of rebellious planets. Again, destroying a planet is a tremendous loss for the Imperial treasury. It would be far more profitable for the Emperor to seize rebellious planets (once subdued by his new and improved army – see below), imprison the rebels, and bring in settlers and Imperial workers to keep the planet’s economy humming.

Upgrading the internal security apparatus is a far more cost-effective option than a DS for the next Sith dictator.

The Death Star as Super-Weapon? 

When I watch Star Wars films now, I often find the battles simplistic because there is little tactical thinking. How would people actually use and respond to these futuristic weapons? The best exception to this pattern is the Rebels’ attack on the Death Star in Episode IV. Instead of attempting a large-scale frontal assault with their strongest ships (the anticipated response) they sent small ships armed with an asymmetric advantage: blueprints of the DS revealing a womp rat-sized weakness.

That is what the Rebels should have done. When I was a Congressional staffer working on defense policy in the 1990s, one of the most insightful essays I read was Richard K. Betts’ “The Downside of the Cutting Edge” (National Interest, 1996) which makes this point: once one has a force that can beat anyone in a fair fight, no one will want to fight fair. Even if the Empire eventually built a DS without a design flaw, its enemies would find some way to fight it indirectly. For example, when its not destroying planets, the DS also likes to grab passing ships in its tractor beam, drag them inside, and then scan them for bad guys. It would be simple to rig a decoy ship as a massive bomb, piloted by a robot with orders to detonate the ship once it’s inside the DS.

The Emperor should not expect, therefore, that a single super-weapon will vanquish all foes. As Seth Masket notes, the same money could be used to make some much-needed, lower-risk investments in the Imperial military. Some examples:

1) Information Security. Wouldn’t it be nice if some too-dumb-to-talk 30 year old bucket of bolts couldn’t hack into the DS’s computer system in a few seconds? I would think so.

2) Troop Transportation. How does the U.S. military get around in the desert? Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles. How do elite scouts of the future get around? On overgrown lizards:

It’s just embarrassing.

3) More robots, please. I get it: the “Clone Wars” featured Republic clones vs. the robot armies of the separatists, and the clones won. Still, though, some of those robots would be really useful in tactical situations, perhaps guided by clones on the ground.

4) More probe droids, please. After the Yavin debacle, the Empire sent out probe droids to scan remote systems. Why not keep a few loitering on every planet on a permanent basis? Then it would be lot harder for any rebellion to hide.

5) Practice, Practice, Practice. An entire legion of the Emperor’s best troops was defeated by a village of teddy bears fighting with sticks and stones. It’s just embarrassing. Clearly they needed better training in tactics, marksmanship, and hand-to-paw combat.

Again, it is my belief that a rational dictator could make better use of the resources that would be used to build Death Stars.

So, in conclusion: the Death Star is bad for internal security and a misallocation of military resources. No thank you!

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It’s tough to make predictions …

Daniel Gayo-Avello has strong feelings about the unpromising record of efforts to predict election results using Twitter data.

“No, you cannot predict elections with Twitter”

And shows that, despite various claims by academics in computer science, no-one seems to have actually tried. I don’t know whether the spelling mistake in this sentence – “In all probability this is the paper which started all the fuzz regarding predicting elections using Twitter” – is deliberate or accidental, but either way, it’s delicious. The paper (correctly) points to incumbency as a better baseline than the one used in the most of the papers, but there is a largish literature among political scientists about election prediction too, which the author (and other computer scientists) seem largely unaware of, and which might provide a better (and more demanding) set of baselines for computer scientists to test their own models against. Perhaps as computational social science gets going, we’ll see more convergence of the literatures …

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The Internet and Political Change

Instead of the internet promoting fundamental political change, it seems to reinforce political change in countries that already have at least some level of democratic freedoms. Internet use is a less effective means to mobilize citizens for democracy in extremely authoritarian countries.

That’s Erik Nisbet, commenting on a new study with Elizabeth Stoycheff and Katy Pearce.  The piece is here.  It is part of an entire issue of the Journal of Communication on the internet, social media, and political change.  The issue is available outside the paywall for the next month.  The issue also includes the published version of the study that guest-blogger Catie Bailard described in her earlier post.

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Internet Voting: How Awesome?

But I suspect that most political scientists start these conversations the same way: the main barrier to participation in the United States is not technological, its attitudinal.  As long as most Americans don’t find politics and elections central to their daily lives, then even the simplest, most innovative, most socially networked elections system will not result in that much of a boost in participation.

Political scientist Paul Gronke, at the Election Updates blog.

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Using Social Media to Measure Conflict in the Gaza Strip

Using a novel data set of hourly dyadic conflict intensity scores drawn from Twitter and other social media sources during the Gaza Conflict (2008–2009), the author attempts to fill a gap in existing studies. The author…measure(s) changes in Israel’s and Hamas’s military response dynamics immediately following two important junctures in the conflict: the introduction of Israeli ground troops and the UN Security Council vote. The author finds that both Hamas’s and Israel’s response to provocations by the other side increase (both by about twofold) immediately after the ground invasion, but following the UN Security Council vote, Israel’s response is cut in half, while Hamas’s slightly increases.

This new article, by political scientist Thomas Zeitzoff, is here (gated).  Here is an earlier working paper version, and a related post by Drew Conway.



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