IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 18

Facebook and Twitter, and of par-
ticipatory media such as Reddit
and YouTube, has created a potent
conduit for the propagation of dis-
information, online vigilantism and
hate speech. Globally, such damag-
ing content has been seen to gain
rapid and widespread traction on
social media platforms, with algo-
rithms igniting their virality, and
user interactions escalating the

tive behavior, Alex Pentland postu-
lated the concept of "idea flow" in
his book Social Physics [4]. Pentland
conceives of "idea flow" as a collec-
tive dynamic process in which spe-
cific human collective behaviors are
forged through a combination of two
forces: social learning (a.k.a., social
influence) and social pressure. Fads
are prototypical short-lived forms
of human collective behavior and
social norms are a longer-
term example.
L et us consider how
socia l networks can be
harnessed and influenced
Research insights from collective
for the spread of positive
behavior. In 2010, Damon
decision-making, network
Centola reported a ground-
science, and control theory can
breaking experiment on
the spread of behavior in
help us harness the positive
an online social network
[5]. It revealed the critical
potential of social networks.
influence of the structure
or topology of the under-
lying network on the effectiveness
hostility. Consequently, rather than
of the spreading process. Pentland
facilitate the healthy sharing of diverse
conducted a similar experiment,
perspectives, discussions in social
reported in his Harvard Business
media platforms often descend
Review article titled "Beyond the
into reductionist arguments, obnox-
ious name-calling, and close-minded
Echo Chamber" [6]. It involved an
grandstanding. Far from being smart
online trading platform, eToro, that
mobs, such senseless swarms con-
enabled online human traders to
verge around disinformation and
engage in social trades. The collec-
foment discord. Mobilized by false-
tive dynamics of these online traders
hoods and toxic views, they are frac-
indirectly interacting through eToro
tious, divisive, and undermine the
were consistent with the empirical
very bedrock of our society.
result uncovered by Centola.
Both studies found that the com-
Programming for Positivity
plex topology of the social net-
In view of such adverse effects of
work - how people are connected
social network interactions, how can
or interact - is critical to the effec-
social networks be redesigned or
tiveness of the spreading process.
tuned to exploit and amplify their pos-
When people are too interconnected,
itive potential? Recent research at the
social exploration is greatly reduced
intersections of collective decision-
and herding behavior emerges, thus
making, network science, and con-
producing the echo chamber effect
trol theory may offer some surprising
of the same views being perpetuat-
insights and potential strategies.
ed. On the other hand, when people
Seeking to bridge knowledge from
are connected in a way that pro-
social science and data science to
motes the flow of ideas, social explo-
better understand human collec-
ration is heightened and a diversity

18

IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

of ideas is shared, thereby allowing
the wisdom of the crowd to peak.
Departing from this premise, we
must thus modulate social networks
so as to ensure that people are opti-
mally (and not excessively) connect-
ed such that they freely exchange
ideas, and are liberated from the
vicious recycling of trite concepts.

The Potential of
Perturbations
Beyond merely optimizing the to-
pology of social networks, we can
also consider introducing stimuli
or perturbations to trigger or elicit
prosocial behavior. By tweaking the
topology of social networks, it is
possible to slow down and even
quarantine perturbations to impede
the flow of negative views. At the
same time, the spread of positive
ideas can be promoted by trigger-
ing prosocial responses through
the appropriate channelling of posi-
tive perturbations.
Drawing from the insights of net-
work science and control theory,
Roland Bouffanais and collabo -
rators theoretically proved the
existence of an optimal network
topology for yielding the most effec-
tive collective response [7]. Their
study was inspired by rich evidence
of collective behaviors in the ani-
mal kingdom: swift evasive maneu-
vers in flocks of starlings being
attacked by predators, cooperative
transportation of cereal crumbs by
groups of ants etc. Nature demon-
strates that a certain level of mim-
icry of knowledgeable individuals,
i.e., social learning, vastly improves
the accuracy of collective decision
making that is critical to the surviv-
al of a group and species: foraging
strategies, mate identification, or
habitat selection.
In their experiments, Bouffa-
nais and collaborators introduced
local perturbations into a swarm
to investigate how g roup -level
∕

DECEMBER 2019



IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019

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