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Dr Michela Redoano on how Facebook micro-targeting affects electoral elections and what brought her to Warwick

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Dr Michela Redoano on how Facebook micro-targeting affects electoral elections and what brought her to Warwick

What projects are you working on at the moment?

In general I take the political economy approach, in the sense that when I look at decisions taken by the public sector, for example on public expenditure and taxation, I consider that these are the outcomes of strategic interactions between voters and elected policymakers’ choices rather than choices driven necessarily entirely by economic principles.

So I am interested in both what affects citizens’ voting choices, for example a political campaign before the elections, as well as policymakers’ policy decisions, knowing that these will affect their chances of re-election.

At the moment I am working on two projects and this is the central focus of both projects, though they appear quite different at first.

The first is “what is the effect of political micro-targeting on Facebook on people’s voting decisions.” We look at the 2016 US presidential campaign and we compare the voting behaviours of US voters, with Facebook accounts and those without - people who read political news on Facebook and people who are very similar in every other characteristic but don’t have a Facebook account and use other sources for news. The novel part of the analysis is that we have a measure of political campaign intensity for each targeted audience. We found that Facebook changes the political behaviour of people. It makes people more polarized, and it makes them tend to stick more with their initial choices in terms of which candidate to vote for, and whether to vote at all. Also we found a significant effect in favour of Trump - those who read news on Facebook were more likely to vote for Trump then those who did not.

We want to extend this research into Europe - we have put together an interdisciplinary team of researchers to run research on political micro-targeting on social media and voting in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain during national elections in each country. This is in the pipeline.

The second project asks whether people’s culture affects their political decisions – this is part of a bigger project that is trying to see how culture is passed on from our parents and grandparents, and whether that is a bigger influence than the place that we live. We use traditional food and dialects to identify these transmission channels. We are using Italian data, with a sample of people living in Milan, Turin and Rome – places where around 70 per cent of residents are not originally from there. We trace the roots of these people, going back to their grandparents, and we ask them to play some public good games, grouping them by place of origin and place of residence. We found that the place of origin on the maternal line has a strong effect on our behaviour – much more so the place that we currently live. People living in Milan but whose grandparents came from Sicily behave more like other Sicilians than their fellow Milanese. And we are looking at how this affects voting behaviour.

So although these projects look different the common ground is the question of how people form their voting decisions. Are they affected by political micro-targeting on social media? Do people carry their backgrounds with them into the voting booth?

Why did you choose this area?

As a new graduate in Italy, almost by chance I started working as a research assistant for a leading Italian Professor who was doing some consultancy work with the regional government, and this gave me an insight into how decisions are taken. I could see that economic theory is important but then, in reality, choices are not always made according to textbooks. This gave me a different framework to think about and this was my starting point.

Why did you choose to become an economist?

The honest answer is that it was completely by chance! I always loved maths, it was my favourite subject at high school, but I didn’t want to be a mathematician. So I decided to try economics - although I didn’t have a very clear idea of what economics was, because I did not study it at school. I was full of preconceptions that it was about money. When I started my course I realised that it is much broader than that, it is about decisions and how individuals make them. To me economics is about understanding people’s behaviour and how they make decisions, and mathematics gives us the tools to do that in a rigorous way.

Economics gives us a methodology to think about lots of issues, which are not necessarily traditional economics questions – they could be from psychology or political science or social science. As economists we bring our mathematical skills and our training to do rigorous research into these questions. There is a lot of collaboration now going on across the social sciences but also with computer science on Big Data projects.

What brought you to Warwick?

I came here to Warwick to do my PhD and really liked it. I worked elsewhere for a few years but came back as I think it’s a great place, I like the University and the Department has a really great group of researchers. It is my first love as it’s the first place I came to in England when I came here from Italy - and it’s a very good place to be.

What is your favourite thing about the Department?

There are two things that make the department great at the moment – one is that it is an excellent place to do research, there is a great work environment with seminars and workshops and speakers coming from all over the world. But at the same time there is also a shared set of values - respect, co-operation and inclusion – that we have been building into our work culture.

This is a very important part of the Department’s life at the moment. We are working towards our Athena Swan, looking to reach more of a gender balance, and this gives us the incentive to make small changes to make the Department more inclusive. So we arrange seminars at times that are feasible for everyone to attend, even people with young families – we have them in the early afternoon, we don’t have them late. We try to have lunch together once a week, we listen to each other and show respect to each other, irrespective of people’s role or seniority.

These kind of initiatives all contribute to making a place where people are happy and have a sense of belonging, where people talk to each other and help each other. As Warwick Economics we compete with the world, but inside the Department we cooperate because we have a common goal.

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