Women, Rails and Telegraphs: An Empirical Study of Information Diffusion and Collective Action

Students

Wharton

Faculty

Assistant Prof of Marketing

Project Summary

I assisted with data-work of a project to answer questions about how information diffusion in networks helps social learning, especially in the context of collective action and protest. To answer these questions, the study examines the Temperance Crusade, one of the earliest instances of organized political mobilization by women in the U.S. This wave of protest activity against liquor dealers spread between the winter of 1873 and the summer of 1874, covering more than 800 towns in 29 states. This series of events provided a worthwhile case-study because towns were connected mainly through two national networks -- the railroad and the telegraph. If a town lost railroad or telegraph connection, it would effectively be isolated from the national informational network, and serve as a control variable in this study. Thereby, this study used econometrics and network science techniques to identify to what extent the spread of information within networks was responsible for a protest event taking place in a given town. I worked on collecting and cleaning data about railway accidents to identify breaks in the railway network, and on newspaper archives chronicling Temperance Crusade protests. The study concluded that railroad and telegraph-mediated information about neighboring protest activity were the main drivers of the diffusion of the protest movement, through a mechanism of social learning and not mere imitation. It also found strong complementarities between both networks.