Causal inference under network interference: a framework for experiments on social networks
January 1, 2017
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Harvard University, 2017.
No man is an island, as individuals interact and influence one another daily in our society. When social influence takes place in experiments on a population of interconnected individuals, the treatment on a unit may affect the outcomes of other units, a phenomenon known as interference. This thesis develops a causal framework and inference methodology for experiments where interference takes place on a network of influence (i.e. network interference). In this framework, the network potential outcomes serve as the key quantity and flexible building blocks for causal estimands that represent a variety of primary, peer, and total treatment effects. These causal estimands are estimated via principled Bayesian imputation of missing outcomes. The theory on the unconfoundedness assumptions leading to simplified imputation highlights the importance of including relevant network covariates in the potential outcome model. Additionally, experimental designs that result in balanced covariates and sizes across treatment exposure groups further improve the causal estimate, especially by mitigating potential outcome model mis-specification. The true potential outcome model is not typically known in real-world experiments, so the best practice is to account for interference and confounding network covariates through both balanced designs and model-based imputation. A full factorial simulated experiment is formulated to demonstrate this principle by comparing performance across different randomization schemes during the design phase and estimators during the analysis phase, under varying network topology and true potential outcome models. Overall, this thesis asserts that interference is not just a nuisance for analysis but rather an opportunity for quantifying and leveraging peer effects in real-world experiments.