Should collective behaviour become “crisis discipline”?

From pandemics to climate change, study of collective behaviour must become “crisis discipline,” researchers argue

Washington/ Berlin, June 17, 2021

/UW News, J. Holtz/ BN, C. Duppé / Social media and other forms of communication technology radically restructured the global flow of information. These platforms are driven to maximize engagement and profitability, not to ensure sustainability or accurate information — and the vulnerability of these systems to misinformation and disinformation poses a dire threat to health, democracy, global climate and more.

No one, not even the platform owners themselves, have much understanding of how their design decisions impact human collective behavior, the authors argue in their paper „Stewardship of global collective behavior“, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS.

“Interaction in social networks, for example which contents are being suggested to individual users, are determined by algorithms,” says Pawel Romanczuk from Humboldt University Berlin. “These algorithms are developed with the sole purpose to maximize ad revenues for the corresponding companies. They aim at enhancing user engagement also through emotional means, so that individual users spend as much time as possible on the platform. These algorithms are secret and unknown to the public. Its completely unclear what influence they may have on our society, for example how much they may contribute to the raise of extreme political polarization, or what impact the spread of misinformation on social networks has on our collective behavior during a global pandemic.”

“We have built and adopted technology that alters behavior at global scales without a theory of what will happen or a coherent strategy for reducing harm,” said Joseph B. Bak-Coleman, the lead author and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.

In consequence, researchers state that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline,” just like medicine, conservation and climate science have done. “There is an urgent need for a global, collaborative, interdisciplinary research effort to better understand and predict the consequences of the interaction of complex self-organization processes and new technologies such as social media,” said Dr. Pawel Romanczuk. “The storming of the Capitol in the U.S. capital Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, or collective effects related to the Corona pandemic are just two striking examples of the role of self-organization phenomena in the recent past.

Lacking a developed framework, tech companies have also fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the “infodemic” of misinformation that impedes public acceptance of pandemic control measures such as wearing masks, widespread testing for the virus and vaccinations.

Collective behavior and other complex systems are fragile. “When perturbed, complex systems tend to exhibit finite resilience followed by catastrophic, sudden, and often irreversible changes,” the authors write. Averting catastrophe in the medium term (e.g., coronavirus) and long term (e.g., climate change, food security) will require rapid and effective collective behavioral responses — yet it remains unknown whether human social dynamics will yield such responses.

“We have seen individual studies about how climate-change disinformation gets over-represented even in the mainstream media, and studies show that in digital media that problem only gets worse,” said co-author Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University. If the study of collective behavior rises to become a “crisis discipline,” it could provide politicians and regulatory agencies with insights for managing social systems.

Joseph B. Bak-Coleman et al., “Stewardship of global collective behavior”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS, Jul 2021, 118 (27) e2025764118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2025764118

(This text, courtesy of the Bernstein Network Computational Neuroscience, is based on the German press release by HU Berlin and uses text from the press release by UW News. Photo: Jordan Harrison/ Unsplash)


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