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Opinion

Poked to Vote

By Sinan Aral, Assistant Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences

Sinan Aral research on creating successful viral marketing campaigns

What role do peer influence and digital social signals have in mobilizing political expression?

Social networks are the pathways through which information, advice, resources and support flow between people. They are essential for many people's decision-making, cooperation and complex interdependence. Yet although humans have almost always lived in networks, advances in computing power and new social technologies have only recently facilitated the development of forms of networked communication that are automating and accelerating the social signals that pulse through the human network on a daily basis. The rapid dissemination of social signals in these digital networks — status updates, tweets, likes, posts, shares and so on — raises serious scientific questions: how, when and to what extent do these signals influence decision-making and the spread of behaviours in society? If social influence drives behaviour, then digital social signals could be used to promote widespread behaviour change and thus to transform commerce, politics and public health. On page 295 of this issue, Bond et al.1 present some of the most convincing evidence to date that peer influence and digital social signals can affect political mobilization.

Political mobilization has been central to recent discourse about the transformative effects of social media — for example, the part that technologies such as Facebook or Twitter played in the protests collectively known as the Arab Spring, or may play in the forthcoming US presidential election. The question is: what role do peer influence and digital social signals have in mobilizing political expression? Do our friends' behaviours inspire us to be politically active, to protest or to vote?

Read full article as published in Nature.