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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Manufactured 'Cascades' on Social Media Can Direct Behavior and Decisions

Heather Callaghan

And how the 'cascade' can be directed...

Was the Internet or Social Media created for your benefit? The current set-up allows for some exposure of new ideas and online connection between friends and family. However, it is also a major surveillance tool and a boon to behavioral psychological researchers observing in secret.

It turns out, human behavior (the most highly studied topic of all time) is so pathetically predictable - especially on social media - that its direction and influence can be cracked using a mathematical algorithm. Information cascades - off or online - are useful for mass behavior modification as they prompt people to do what they normally wouldn't.

A press release asks:

How do people in a social network behave? How are opinions, decisions and behaviors of individuals influenced by their online networks? Can the application of math help answer these questions?
 Flavio Chierichetti who co-authored a paper that studies online behavior, published last month in the SIAM Journal on Computing. says:
The way in which information, decisions, and behaviors spread through a network is a fundamental social phenomenon, and the past several decades have shown that it is a phenomenon that can be studied using rich mathematical models.
At one level, these processes have elements in common with biological contagion, which is also inherently based on a mechanism of spread through a network. But at another level, the processes are different -- the spread of behavior is based on individual decision-making, and as such, can exhibit richer and more complex behavior than the more direct mechanics of biological contagion.
Previous studies along with the other authors have demonstrated that social networks are often influenced by each other's decisions, resulting in a run of behaviors in which choices become highly correlated - a cascade of decisions. But get this - the authors focus on the issue of ordering in a cascade with the end goal of maximizing the expected number of "favorable"decisions.

Alessandro Panconesi said [emphasis added]:

Often, cascading behavior in a social network is guided by an entity that wants to achieve a certain outcome.

For example, a company might be trying to guide the adoption of a product by word-of-mouth effects, or a political movement might be trying to guide the success of its message in a population.
Chierichetti adds [emphasis added]:
As we develop further insight into such questions, we can begin to map our understanding onto a wide range of phenomena in the world, including the formation of opinions, the adoption of new products and technologies, and the evolution of new cultural norms. 
A challenging question, and one where we are only in the early stages, is to understand how the local properties of individual decisions translate to the global properties of a full cascadeas behavior spreads through the whole network.
They then go on to study how timing is everything and create ways to use timing to the best strategic advantage. They look for ways of properly "seeding" these cascades.They feel that the consequences of some early decisions can be amplified due to the effect they have on the rest of the population.

The concern then becomes - who's cracking the cascade? Who's programming the cascade? And, most importantly, who's spreading the cascade? Or, rather, who is playing a part of the cascade, without realizing it? The examples given by the study authors surround corporate and political interests and when best for them to schedule their cascades.

This study came to mind after seeing multiple memes on Facebook justifying the use of torture that subsequently spread like wildfire. The image was of a man caught falling from one of the WTC towers on 9/11 with a statement that said, "This is why I don't give a damn how we gathered information from terrorists!" Indeed, the reactionary sharers did not - to share that bold statement and image without questioning the bigger dynamics of torture the same week news of CIA torturescandals made headway in mainstream news. Endorsing a statement was just a click and a share away.

Now, was that 'cascade' influenced by social network friends? Was it merely the reflection of deeply ingrained beliefs by each individual or was it a prompted cascade by some other entity? I don't know. But apparently a mathematical algorithm can crack and direct the answer.

Heather Callaghan is a natural health blogger and food freedom activist. You can see her work at and Like at Facebook. 

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