Networks, Causal Inference, and Political Violence
Greetings! I am a fifth-year doctoral student at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University studying complex networks, ethnic conflict, and civil war. I am also a data science instructor at the New College of the Humanities in London and a fellow at the Post-Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo. My three-paper dissertation examines 1) the role of cross-ethnic social networks in promoting wartime rescue and assistance in Bosnia, 2) the impact of road networks on civil war onset in Africa, and 3) the effects of terrorism on immigration attitudes in the U.S.
Photo: Sarajevo at twilight (taken during my fieldwork in 2018-9)
Research Goals & Bio
My overarching goal as an academic researcher is to produce and promote policy-oriented research that will help governments and organizations prevent mass killing and the deliberate targeting of civilians. I believe that networks offer a useful tool for understanding the behavior of individuals, groups, and states in conflict processes. My methodological interests include:
Developing methods to identify causal inference in networks
Bringing new modeling tools from mathematics and physics into political science
Improving network survey design and data collection methods
Designing randomized control trials in a network framework
Developing approaches to fieldwork in conflict areas that respect for the dignity and well-being of respondents and local staff.
Left: At Lake Victoria with my research assistant Hillary Ahomugisha, a Master's student at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. If you're looking for an outstanding RA, translator, or fixer in Uganda, contact me and I'll put you in touch!
My substantive interests in political science include:
Genocide, mass atrocities, and civilian-targeting during civil wars
Impact of cross-group social ties on attitudes and behavior
Spread of violence through social, communication, and infrastructure networks
Mobilization and organization of armed and non-violent movements
Female rebel combatants and the role of women in policing and peacekeeping
A native of Washington, DC, I earned my B.A. in mathematics and statistics with a concentration in international studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, where I ran cross country and track. My thesis on hyperbolic geometry, since published, is available here. Prior to graduate school, I designed and conducted a door-to-door survey on civic engagement among nomads in rural Mongolia, served on senior staff at Seeds of Peace International Camp, interned at Search for Common Ground, and taught high school math and social studies. During my teaching career, I designed a course on social choice and electoral systems called "Math, Politics, and Society."
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY "NETWORKS"?
A network is any system that can be represented as a collection of things, people, or groups (called nodes) and their connections (called links). In political science, networks have been used to model the spread of news or gossip through a community, alliances between rebel groups, co-sponsorship of bills among legislators, and the flow of money in politics. The network above represents the spread of (mis)information about the Zika virus over Twitter, based on a dataset I collected of all tweets in the Western Hemisphere mentioning Zika during the height of the pandemic. The nodes are Twitter users and the links indicate who re-tweeted whom. The colors reveal densely-linked clusters of nodes which, my analysis shows, correspond primarily to labor unions, immigrant groups, political parties, and followers of popular politicians. Political networks such as these thus appear to be important conduits of information and fake news that shape public health crises.
Job Market Paper: Who Rescues? Who Betrays? The Fate of Cross-Group Friendships in Wartime
Do cross-ethnic social ties completely cease to matter once the bullets start flying? Based on a new survey on survivors of the 1992-5 Bosnian War, I find that cross-ethnic assistance was not only widespread but highly correlated with the number of outgroup friendships pre-war. In contrast, help from complete strangers and active betrayal by close friends appear to have been rare. Drawing on over 140 interviews, I show how cross-ethnic social networks were used to channel assistance to those in need from those with the resources and position to provide it. Most people, it appears, were willing to help not only friends but even friends-of-friends and acquaintances, provided the risk was not too great. The result was widespread assistance that was helpful but generally not life-saving. Finally, integrating census data and a comprehensive database of wartime fatalities with my survey results, I argue that intermarriage and residential integration led to more assistance but had little effect on the overall death toll. Policymakers should, therefore, continue to promote cross-ethnic social networks as a means to mitigate non-fatal suffering during mass violence, but should not rely on them as a means to prevent violence outright.
Stuck in the Mud: Roads, Rain and Repression
(with Philipp Hunziker and Carl Müller-Crepon)
Does government access to remote regions encourage or hinder armed conflict? Road networks have long been an essential tool of state-building for projecting state power from the capital into the hinterlands. Such power could potentially deter would-be rebels and stamp out clashes between local ethnic groups or it could lead to increased rebel capacity and more state-initiated violence. To answer these questions, we use quasi-random variation in heavy rainfall as an instrument for whether certain roads are temporarily removed from the network due to flooding. We then examine whether outlying areas rendered-temporarily inaccessible experience an uptick in violence. Our evidence comes from a newly-digitized historical dataset of African road networks extracted from Michelin road maps using deep-learning neural networks, satellite-based weather data, and a high-resolution conflict event dataset. Based on our results, we expect to be able to highlight those parts of the African road network where improvements would foster state reach the most.
The Impact of Domestics Terror Attacks on Attitudes Towards Immigrants
(with William Minozzi, Michael Neblo, and David Lazer)
How do close encounters with terrorism shape political sentiments? We examine longitudinal data for a group of students, a subset of whom lived through a terrorist attack by a Muslim immigrant, and compare their support for immigration before and after to that of their peers. Contrary to the existing literature, we find an asymmetric reaction across the political spectrum: while moderate and conservative students increase their hostility to immigration, liberal students do not register any shift in opinion. This effect is not explained by personality traits such as anxiety, nor by prior views on immigration, nor is it accompanied by a shift in ideology, authoritarianism, or other political attitudes. We argue that this heterogeneous yet limited effect is driven by participants’ subconscious efforts to frame the attacks within an existing narrative. For moderates and conservatives, the incident activates confirmation bias reinforcing their previous fears. Liberals, in contrast, experience cognitive dissonance and write it off as irrelevant or fit it into some other cognitive frame commensurate with their political identity. We conclude by reflecting on the how future events of this kind may influence the American electorate.
Photo: Aftermath of terror attack at Ohio State University. Credit: Blervis (Wikipedia)
Segregation and Coexistance in Informal Settlements
In the summer of 2016 I spent eight weeks in Kampala, Uganda interviewing and surveying residents in slums about their friendship, secret-sharing, and money-borrowing networks. My preliminary results suggest that migrants from the North of Uganda are more likely to segregate themselves along ethnic lines, while those hailing from the center are more likely to form cross-ethnic ties. I am currently exploring to what degree this homophily (self-segregation) can be attributed to war-related trauma from internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled the conflict between the Ugandan military and the Lord's Resistance Army. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that residents who have spent more time in the diverse environment of Kampala are more likely to be open to friendships with other tribes. Hence, a slum, in spite of crime, unemployment, and conflict over property rights, can potentially serve as a breeding ground for coexistence.
ONGOING NON-DISSERTATION PROJECTS
An online randomized control trial to increase voter turnout through student friendship networks
An analysis of racial and gender bias in the interdisciplinary field of network science
A randomized control trial in rural India looking at how family planning interventions can multiply their impact by taking advantage of pre-existing friendships and kinship ties
AFFILIATIONS & LINKS
I am supported in my work by the National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship, a nationally-competitive three-year-fellowship awarded to doctoral students in the physical, biological, and behavioral sciences. My advisor David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science, is my primary mentor and supervises my RA work. I have also received research grants from the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.
NETWORK SCIENCE PHD PROGRAM
Northeastern's Network Science PhD Program, the first of its kind in the United States, attracts students from physics, sociology, computer science, and everything in between, eager to tackle problems that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries.
FEATURE STORY IN NEWS@NORTHESTERN
"Matt Simonson’s desire to study and foster greater understanding of how the international community responds to political conflict, genocide, and humanitarian crises has been shaped by his myriad cultural and global experiences...."
MY NDSEG FELLOWSHIP COVERED IN COS NEWS
"Matt Simonson is not your typical mathematician. The first-year Network Science PhD student at Northeastern intertwines quantitative mathematical rigor with the study of political conflict and genocide around the world. As the recipient of the 2016 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship..."
NETWORK SCIENCE INSTITUTE
Come on over to hear our twice-weekly speakers from all over the world and learn more about the work my fellow PhD students and faculty are doing to model epidemics, group behavior, and cultural trends, while pioneering new tools in the study of complex systems and networks.
NULAB FOR TEXTS, MAPS, AND NETWORKS
Check out the outstanding collaborative network of digital humanities and computational social science scholars where I served as an RA and which has funded my work in Uganda.