IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019 - 19

consensus was attained. They sub-
jected an artificial swarm of robots
to perturbations of varying speeds to
study the phenomenon of mimicry
and the effectiveness of their col-
lective decision-making process.
By tuning the interaction network
between the swarming bots, it was
possible to unfreeze the misguided
herd behavior (the swarm's echo
chamber) and foster a significantly
more responsive collective behavior
to fast-paced perturbations. In other
words, if we extend this knowledge
to the social networks with which
we are currently familiar, dynami-
cally altering the extent of interac-
tion between users can restore a
rich flow of ideas, thereby prevent-
ing users from converging around
points of disinformation and dis-
cord, and help to avert damaging
herd mentality.
Such experiments are revealing
because they shed light on collec-
tive behaviors that are not naturally
occurring in nature. Biologists are
unable to tweak the interaction net-
works of flocking birds or schooling
fish, and ethologists have no con-
trol over the pace of local perturba-
tions affecting swarms of animals.
Instead, experiments with artificial
swarm robotics systems can inform
the development of strategies for
modulating idea flow in social net-
works so as to privilege positive idea
flow while discouraging the negative.
Technologically-mediated social
networks are ultimately manmade
and subject to human intervention,
and the algorithms that drive such
social interaction are fundamen-
tally perturbations. The question
t hen remains as to how we can
introduce carefully-calibrated per-
turbations that can yield prosocial
responses to enhance the integrity
of social networks.
As promising as this proposed
approach sounds, it is critical to
bear in mind that social networks
DECEMBER 2019

are "complex animals" with
multiplex or multilayer net-
works. Data scientist Alain
While regulatory responses stem
Barrat and his collaborators
recently demonstrated that
from a groundswell of societal
different layers of a social
despair, they are no match for
network do not always con-
vey the same information
the tidal wave of challenges
[8]. Hence, the proposed
approach of introducing
technology has ushered in.
perturbations may be chal-
lenging to implement in an
online social network replete with
have introduced. After all, technolo-
human flaws and foibles, unlike
gists have successfully plumbed their
a comparatively straightforward
intellectual prowess to forge creative
robotic swarm interaction network.
spaces for social interaction. So, too,
Nonetheless, given that social media
should they tap their technological
platforms collect copious amounts
genius to shape senseless swarms
of information on their users, such
into smart mobs.
data can be systematically mined
Author Information
to identify the most tweakable layer
Sun Sun Lim is Professor of Commu-
at which to introduce perturbations,
nication and Technology and Head
and at what pace.
of Humanities, Arts and Social Sci-
The Ethical Burden
ences at Singapore University of
As Sheila Jasanoff has rightly cau-
Technology and Design, Singapore.
Roland Bouffanais is Associate Pro-
tioned, technologists can exult in
fessor of Engineering Product Develop-
the promise of their innovations, but
ment at Singapore University of Tech-
must be cognizant of the unexpected
nology and Design, Singapore.
harms and unintended consequences
these may unleash [9]. It would appear
References
that as currently designed, online
[1] H. Rheingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social
social networks can wreak consider-
Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Basic, 2002.
[2] M. Castells, Networks Of Outrage and
ably more detriment than benefit.
Hope: Social Movements in the Internet
The insinuation of such sociotechni-
Age. Cambridge, U.K.: Wiley, 2015.
cal architectures into our everyday
[3] S. Vosoughi, D. Roy, and S. Aral, "The
spread of true and false news online," Sciinterpersonal interactions can com-
ence, vol. 359, pp. 1146-1151, Mar. 2018.
pound destructive human behavior
[4] A.S. Pentland, Social Physics: How
if their effects are not acknowledged
Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter.
New York, NY: Penguin, 2015.
or arrested. Ultimately, while regula-
[5] D. Centola, "The spread of behavior in
tory responses stem from a ground-
an online social network experiment," Sciswell of societal despair, they are no
ence, vol. 329, pp.1194-1197, Sept. 2010.
[6] A.S. Pentland, "Beyond the Echo Chamber,"
match for the tidal wave of challenges
Harvard Business Rev., vol. 91, pp. 80, Nov. 2018.
technology has ushered in. Technolo-
[7] D. Mateo et al., "Optimal network topol-
gists must therefore confront their
ogy for responsive collective behavior,"
Science Advances, vol. 5, Apr. 2019.
lofty ethical burden because with
[8] A. Manivannan et al., "Are the different
power comes responsibility. Rather
layers of a social network conveying the
than rue the unforeseen adverse out-
same information?" EPJ Data Science, vol.
7, pp. 34, Sept. 2018.
comes of their technological wizardry,
[9] S. Jasanoff, The Ethics of Invention:
they must press on to devise creative
Technology and the Human Future. New
solutions to mitigate, if not obliterate,
York, NY: Norton, 2016.
the problems that their innovations
∕

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IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2019

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