MIT GOV/LAB is committed to supporting MIT graduate students conducting original field research and data collection on MIT GOV/LAB topics and themes of interest. One way we support students is through our seed grant program that enables students to conduct their research.

We spoke with Eyal Hanfling, one of our Graduate Research Fellows, about his dissertation research on social media and political behavior in India. Hanfling received travel support to attend a workshop at WBZ Berlin in June 2023 to receive feedback on a research design for a lab-in-the-field experiment. 

MIT GOV/LAB: Could you please tell me a bit about your academic and professional background? How did you get interested in political science research?

I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and have always been interested in politics. My route to political science started with language study. In high school, I received a scholarship from the U.S. State Department to study Hindi in India for a year. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by South Asia. In college, I developed interests in identity politics and conflict on the subcontinent and learned Urdu in addition to Hindi. After graduating, I worked on nuclear issues at the Stimson Center, an international security think tank in D.C. While I was envisioning potential dissertation topics, I knew that I wanted to use my Hindi and Urdu language skills and focus on people as the unit of analysis. This led me to research on political behavior where I’ve been able to spend time in the field conducting interviews, participant observation, and surveys.

MIT GOV/LAB: Could you tell me a little about your work and how it relates with MIT GOV/LAB themes? 

WhatsApp plays a key role in the social, political, and economic lives of people across India. The country will soon have an estimated one billion smartphone users, and cheap mobile data has brought a variety of social media platforms to every village, town, and city. A growing body of work explores how misinformation, hate speech, and even AI-generated deepfakes spread online in India. But we know less about how this content affects offline behavior. My research examines how people receive news about contentious political events through WhatsApp, and how this impacts their willingness to make decisions about intergroup cooperation. In other words, I’m interested in the effects of online activity on in-person interactions among people belonging to different social groups. I also pay close attention to the mechanisms, or pathways, through which WhatsApp impacts political behavior. I explore whether messages conveying certain emotions, reinforcing social norms, or providing information result in heightened cooperation.

My project intersects with a few strands of GOV/LAB research. First, I build on GOV/LAB’s ongoing work on technology and governance. In societies polarized along ethnic or religious lines, certain technologies may help build citizen trust in government and promote intergroup cooperation. My research is inspired by GOV/LAB’s work in South Africa with the civic technology organization Grassroot that shows how WhatsApp can help communities learn from each other and build social movements. Next, my focus on mechanisms driving intergroup cooperation relates to GOV/LAB research affiliate Paige Bollen’s work on urban street networks and their impact on intergroup contact. Finally, GOV/LAB’s resources on best practices for behavioral science guided my approach to designing a lab-in-the-field experiment.

MIT GOV/LAB: How did the seed grant support your research?

I used the seed grant to travel to Berlin, where I presented a research design at a workshop hosted by the WZB Social Science Center. The workshop — Berlin Meeting on the Political Economy of Development (MoPED), was held jointly with the Intergroup Relations Working Group (IGR). It convened scholars working on intergroup relations, migration, gender, climate, and other topics in political economy for in-depth discussions of 12 papers and research designs. I had a chance to get useful feedback on how to implement my experiment from scholars in the GOV/LAB network. I also used the seed grant to travel from Germany to India to conduct interviews and refine the design of the lab-in-the-field experiment. 

MIT GOV/LAB: Can you tell us more about your plans for the lab-in-the-field experiment?

WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted messaging platform, so researchers can’t easily monitor what’s being shared in chats or access data through an API. As a result, one way of studying the platform is by simulating the experience of using WhatsApp for participants in a research study. I do this in part of my dissertation through a lab-in-the field experiment, where I designed an interface that looks like WhatsApp to carefully measure how people look at certain content. I’m using the experiment to understand the mechanisms linking someone’s experience using WhatsApp and their willingness to cooperate with people belonging to a different religious community. Unlike a traditional survey experiment, a lab-in-the-field gives participants the time and space to show researchers how they perform real-world political behaviors. For my experiment, I created new activities to measure cooperation that go beyond typical vignettes and survey questions. These methods include map-making, real-life interactions with enumerators, economic games, and contact with online social networks.

MIT GOV/LAB: How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not busy with research work? 

I ran cross country and track in high school and college (mostly the 5000m race) and have tried my best to stay in shape as a post-collegiate runner. I’m currently living in Chicago, where I love running along Lake Michigan. During fieldwork trips to India, I usually spend my free time trying new foods — Uttar Pradesh, the state where I conduct my research, is famous for its mangoes! 

Photo: Entrance gate to Kannauj, one of the cities in Uttar Pradesh, India where Eyal conducted interviews (Credit: Eyal Hanfling).