Viral Political Action

Simon Johnson and Andrew Lippman

MAS S64, 15.S13 (3 units), 15.S19 (6 Units)

seminar (3 units) or as seminar+project (6 units)

Meets Thursdays 5:30-7PM alternately at Sloan and at the Media Lab (dinner will be provided). Biweekly project help sessions in E14-348F

Class is over. Please send us suggestions for next term and January. For those interested in testing and deployment, we will be available for special project registration and may be able to fund field tests. We will likely invite some guests for monthly dinner sessions also.

Project papers and refs for Fall, 2017:

NeighborHub (paper), and poster.



Democracy thrives on an informed public, and it fails when propaganda distorts truth and people lose faith in institutions of information and governance.   It also fails when people feel humiliated and motivated by bias instead of reason.  Over the past year we have seen a rise to prominence of new sources of public information as well as new techniques for organizing and mobilizing political action. This seminar will consider recent social, behavioral, and political analysis with the goal of creating a new set of grassroots tools and applications to enable diverse populations to become politically active mobilizers, which we will do as class projects.  There are 469 congressional (House and Senate) elections in 2018 occurring throughout the US; if we are successful in this seminar, we will help ensure that these results reflect the true will of the people.  And we will learn the dynamics of public opinion and action in 2017. This seminar will meet in two parts.  We will have weekly 5:30 - 7PM dinner discussions with periodic invited guest speakers, and a project unit where groups will design and build test viral organizing apps.  Students can sign up for the dinners and/or the project component (additional credit). There will be tutorial and demonstration sessions for projects.

Target audience: graduate students and advanced undergraduates.  The project teams will be hands-on and cross-functional using tools developed at the Media Lab.


  1. Sifry, M.,

    Obama’s Lost Army,

    New Republic, Feb, 2017
  2. Simon Johnson,

    Restore American Democracy – Mobilize Your National Network,

    Moyer’s & Co website, March 7, 2017
  3. Tang, J., et al,

    Reflecting on the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge,

    CACM vol 54, No 4, April 2011
  4. Boxell, L., et al, 

    Is the Internet causing political polarization?,

    NBER Working Paper No. 23258, March, 2017
  5. Marshall Ganz,

    “Speaking of Power”,

    Gettysburg Project, (2014), pp. 1-5.
  6. Daniel Schlozman (2015),

    “Political Parties and Social Movements” in When Movements Anchor Parties,

    Princeton University Press, Chapter 2, pp. 14-48.
  7. Green, D., et al,

    Referendum contingent valuation, anchoring, and willingness to pay for public goods,

    Resource and Energy Economics 20 1998 85–116
  8. Stanford History Education Group,

    Evaluating Information: The cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,

    Executive Summary.
  9. American Press Institute, 

    Who Shared it

  10. Hastorf and Cantril, 

    They saw a game,

    Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49(1), 1954
  11. Kruger, J. and Dunning, D.,  

    Unskilled and Unaware of it,

    Journal of personality and social psychology, 1999
  12. Bakshy, E.  et al,

    Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter,

    WSDM '11
  13. Kramer, W., and Gigerenzer, G., 

    How to Confuse with Statistics or: The use and misuse of conditional probabilities,

    Statistical Science, 20(3), 2005
  14. Gigerenzer, G., 

    Why the distinction between single-event probabilities and frequencies is important for psychology (and vice versa),

    Subjective Probability, 1994
  15. Horgan, J.,

    Bayes’s Theorem:  What’s the big deal?,

    Scientific American, Jan, 2016
  16. Bond, etal,

    A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,

    Nature, September, 2012

Speakers and topics:

Date Place Topic Readings
14 Sept E62-346 What is the nature of grassroots political engagement?  Precedent analysis:  Bowling Alone (Putnam), Strangers in Their Own Land (Hochschild), The Politics of Resentment (Cramer); as a case study.  Student group formation. 1,2,10
21 Sept E15-341 Engaging public discussion: Iyad Rahwan, Media Lab.  Red Balloon challenge, Moral Machine 3 (13 optional)
28 Sept E62-450 Online and Offline Organization, Danny Weitzner, IPRI
5 Oct E15-341 Political campaign methodology and validation: Professor Donald Green, Columbia University. 7
12 Oct E62-450 The nature of news:  Andrew Heyward, ex-president of CBS News. 4,9
19 Oct E15-341 Role of print and electronic journalism: William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. 8
25 Oct
Note date!
E62-450 The nature of activism and organization:  Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School 5,6
2 Nov E15-341 TBD 12
9 Nov No Class No Class
16 Nov E62-450 Congressman Seth Moulton 11,14,15
23 Nov No Class Happy Thanksgiving
30 Nov E15-341 Gary Gensler 16
7 Dec E62-450 Project poster and demo dinner

Project Schedule

Please arrange for your project to have either Simon or Andy as mentors and schedule a weekly meeting with the mentor to track progress.

Date Action Notes
12 Oct Formal Proposal Form your team and fill out the google doc form here
19 Oct Design Presentation Present Design sketches and work plan
25 Oct
Note date!
Progress Report Present progress in class meeting
2 Nov Live demo Try it for this election if you can
9 Nov No Class No Class
16 Nov Formal presentation Your audience is Congressman Seth Moulton
23 Nov No Class Happy Thanksgiving
30 Nov Open discussion Any results to share
7 Dec E62-450 Project poster and demo dinner


Andrew Lippman,
Deb Widener,
Simon Johnson,
Michelle Fiorenza,