Plotkin talks gerrymandering issues

Photo by Garrett Shoemaker Student Publications

Last Thursday, the college of Biological Sciences kicked of its first Frontier of Science Lecture of 2020 with a lecture by Joshua Plotkin. Plotkin is an Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, where he co-directs the Penn Center for Mathematical Biology. Plotkin completed his Ph.D. with Simon Levin, a famous mathematical biologist and ecologist currently teaching at Princeton University. 

Throughout his career Plotkin has received multiple awards including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship, the Alfred Sloan Foundation research fellowship and most recently, the Akira Kubo prize to society of mathematical biology.

Before he began his lecture, he talked about his motivations for speaking on information gerrymandering and undemocratic decisions. 

“Events of 2016 really forced the conversion of me. The belief that scientists have a real responsibility to not only hear any sort of upheaval in the American political landscape, but to change that. This talk is a product of that new agenda, as well as the results of vibration with terrific colleagues across several disciplines.”

Plotkin’s lecture centered around how the structure of social networks can distort decision making. Social media has fundamentally changed how information flows through our society. Today, most of the world gets its news from social media platforms rather than traditional news sites.  

In the past, national conversations were guided by traditional media that would help to center the conversation on any topic, in contrast with today, where people have the power to shut out any voice they don’t want to hear. In addition, social media is completely unregulated, and as a result is prone to misinformation and purposeful distortion. 

Since many voters receive their information from social media platforms, they live in partisan bubbles and are prone to misinformation on political issues, and as a result make collectively bias decisions. To test how this phenomenon influences voters, Plotkin designed a simple game called the motor game. The objective of the game was to test how humans contribute to collective decisions like voting in a national election, based on information being shared on a social network. Users have partisan goals yet, also value compromise to some degree. 

The game concluded that that “information gerrymandering” can bias the outcome of a vote. In the stimulated game, even if the two opposing parties are equally popular, chances are that one party will win up to 60% of the time.

To close out his lecture, Plotkin stated he, along with his colleagues in the scientific community, would continue to do more research to help find a solution to the problem of information gerrymandering.  

In addition, when asked about the responsibility of citizens he noted that we must demand transparency when it comes to media. “What can we as citizens do, and I feel like citizens have sort of even greater responsibility, or harder responsibility of scientists,  is to demand transparency and regulation of social media so the FCC exists because the US government realized as soon as radio and television was introduced that radio companies could be used political tools. So they devised the FCC to provide transparency and regulation, but there’s no FCC for Facebook right now. And yet, Facebook is manifestly a political tool that can be used by either party or even by foreign adversaries.”

The research that Plotkin talked about was published last year in Nature in a paper titled, “Information gerrymandering and undemocratic decisions.”