Gravity of affinity: Evidence from tweets during the World Cup

- with Julian Hinz

Societies that are culturally closer to each other exchange goods and services, capital, innovations and technologies more intensively (Boisso and Ferrantino, 1997; Melitz, 2008; Spolaore and Wacziarg, 2009). Yet, they also fight more with each other (Spolaore and Wacziarg, 2016). Following the path of globalization, a major challenge for both theoretical and empirical research however is that, in the longer run, heterogeneity of preferences, values and beliefs, as well as key cultural boundaries and identities, are themselves endogenous – that is, affected by social, political, and economic factors and hence subject to powers of convergence (Spolaore, 2022). But why does cultural distance still matter for these outcomes today? In this paper, we argue that cultural boundaries persist over time and space.

The term culture originates in sociology, describing ”the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful. [It] is expressed in social narratives, ideologies, practices, tastes, values, and norms as well as in collective representations and social classifications” (American Sociological Association). There exist many more (detailed) definitions about culture - reflecting the concepts rather elusive nature. Yet, deriving from these definitions, culture naturally translates to the way business is conducted within cultural boundaries, reflected via e.g. contract enforcement or work philosophy. At the same time it contains factors determining (economic) interaction across cultural boundaries that rest on for example communication or preferences.

It comes naturally to ask for the driving factors behind empirical findings as described above. Given that culture is a concept of historical origin dating back hundreds of years in time it is not immediately clear why it has such strong impact on today’s outcomes. Due to patterns of globalization and convergence around the world culture develops and adjusts over time, weakening or even loosing its original identity. Conversely, culture and cultural identity can be particularly persistent over time and space. The latter might be responsible for persistent obstacles in international (economic) cooperation that could be overcome by specifically addressing its sources. To give an example, a German firm might hesitate doing business with a firm residing in a country that cherishes oral agreements over written agreements. Political interventions such as the provision of export credit guarantees that protect German exporters from debt defaults could overcome this lack of trust.

In this paper we investigate the persistence of cultural values. We do so by following the transmission of historically based concepts of culture over time and space.We investigate two specific questions: (i) Can we observe persistence, i.e. full transmission, of cultural values of historical origin or is it rather subject to decay? Globalization led to a significant increase in social and economic exchange around the world that might have affected the delimitation of different cultural circles. Depending on the direction of delimitation, i.e. convergence vs divergence, transmission might be stronger or weaker. (ii) The persistence of cultural affinity may be heterogeneous across different dimension of culture, i.e. language, religion or even political decision making. We single out and compare the effects of each of these dimensions. We compare and analyze the geographical dimension of social media activity via the platform X (former Twitter) and relate it to various measures of cultural identity and its transmission over time and space. This research design allows us to combine a measure of geographical and temporal transmission of a given relationship with a measure of its strength.

We document strong gravity forces for the cultural affinity between countries. The attention towards countries sharing a common hegemonial history, the same official language, and countries at shorter distances is higher compared to other participating countries. More interestingly, countries with a higher share of migrants in the country that is targeted by the tweet show significantly higher affection towards the hosting country. Exploring the direction of attention, we find that countries exhibit more adversarial attitudes if they are geographically distant or share a common historical background. Similarly, a high migration share comes with a less negative attitude towards the country targeted by the tweet. We believe that cultural values are persistent in shaping peoples attitudes even when, for example, relocating to a different cultural environment through migration. Hence we provide micro-evidence from the USA. We use reported ancestry of US citizens on Census Tract level to investigate the regional tweeting behavior during the World Cup 2018. Again, gravity forces shape people’s attitudes towards other nations. As expected, Tweets are more frequent and more positive towards their country of ancestry. More interestingly, we find patterns of indirect transmission of cultural affinity. Users’ affinity towards a particular nation seems to be intricately linked to the historical relationship that nation has with the user’s ancestral origin. From these results we can conclude that cultural affinity comes in various shapes that originate in different institutional, political and geographic settings but also reflect (socio-) economic developments. Hence, it is a concept that is shaped by very persistent factors but also emerges over time as societies and environments change.

We contribute to two strands of the existing literature. The concept of culture has been subject to an extensive amount of research in social science; Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales (2006) and Nadler and Breuer (2019) for example provide detailed overviews of studies investigating the role of culture in economic exchange and finance. Conventionally, the role of culture enters the scientific literature as an explanatory variable to some social or economic rationale as well as in a constant (time-invariant) symmetric form. For that matter, empirical papers adopt the definition developed by Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales (2006) as “beliefs and values that ethnic, religious, and social groups transmit fairly unchanged from generation to generation” , employing rather broad and shallow indicators such as language, religion and/or ethnicity (Alesina and Giuliano, 2015). Culture affects economic decisions and outcomes via trust, beliefs and preferences that are formed within and across identities (Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales, 2006). It may even evolve and change over time and does not necessarily need to be reciprocal. We contribute to this literature by focusing on the second part of this definition - the transmission of culture and cultural affinity over time and space. We set up a simple model about bilateral cultural affinity to test whether these affinities are actually transitive - this part is still under construction though and will be covered in a future version of the paper.

Second, social media as a source of data for scientific research has only recently gained importance. Similar to our paper, social media has been used to identify cultural heritage and its role in economic outcomes. Social networks shape many aspects of societal structures and identity formation. These include for example patterns of migration and travel, political preferences and social mobility (Bailey, Johnston, et al., 2020). For example, G. J. Felbermayr and Toubal (2010) use bilateral score data from the Eurovision Song Contest to construct a measure of cultural proximity between countries. They show that it increases trade volumes even after controlling for conventional cultural indicators. Bailey, Johnston, et al. (2020) use friendship connections on the social network Facebook to investigate social connectedness within Europe.

Furthermore, using the same data, Bailey, Gupta, et al. (2021) show that two countries that are more socially connected also trade more with each other. While understanding that these networks can be informative in various aspects in the social sciences, researchers face serious constraints when it comes to the availability of large-scale representative data on social connections across space. For this matter we exploit an original data set that provides us with a synthetic copy of a real world social network. We evaluate information about the spatial dimension, the frequency and sentiment of interactions between individuals from different locations around the world on the social network platform X.

Keywords: gravity equation, cultural economics, international relations, cultural affinity, world cup

JEL-Classification: F02, F50, Z10