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How rumours spread on electronic networks

This entry was posted in Internet on 30 April 2013 by

A major focus of work on the Internet strand is the question of how ideas, memes, rumours, ‘facts’, etc. disseminate through online networks.  Is the online world significantly different from its offline counterpart, and, if so, in what ways?  These questions have been of enduring interest to sociologists at least since 1973 when the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published his famous paper on the importance of ‘weak’ ties in social networks. In “The strength of weak ties” Granovetter suggested that information largely spreads through society between individuals with weak connections rather than strong ties. His experiment involved asking a few hundred people how they found their jobs. It turned out that the most common route was through vague acquaintances  rather than through strong friends.   Since then, ‘The Strength of Weak Ties” has become one of the most highly cited in social network theory.

Not surprisingly, those who study online social networks have been keen to ascertain if the result that Granovetter observed in the real world also holds in cyberspace, and — broadly speaking — it seems that it does.  This study by Aytan Bakshy, a data scientist at Facebook, for example, found that

“even though people are more likely to consume and share information that comes from close contacts that they interact with frequently (like discussing a photo from last night’s party), the vast majority of information comes from contacts that they interact with infrequently.  These distant contacts are also more likely to share novel information, demonstrating that social networks can act as a powerful medium for sharing new ideas, highlighting new products and discussing current events.”

This finding was interesting not just because it seemed to corroborate Granovetter’s real-world result, but also because it could be seen as a rebuttal of Cass Sunstein’s argument (in Republic.Com) that online communications may tend to degenerate into non-intersecting “digital echo chambers”.  Online social networks, says Bakshy, “may actually increase the spread of novel information and diverse viewpoints” — and weak ties are the key to that.

But what about the role of strong ties in social networks — i.e. the relationships between the relatively small number of people which which any individual has frequent interactions?  An interesting recent study by some American researchers has explored this.  They examined ~600 million time-stamped  mobile phone calls between 6 million people over six months in an unnamed European country and used the (anonymised) data to see how an individual’s ‘ego net’ — i.e. personal network of strong ties — evolved over time.  (Most previous research seems to have ignored the temporal dimension and concentrated instead on aggregated or averaged data.)

Having studied how egonets evolve, the researchers then created a simulation model with a network of artificial agents that make connections with each other in the same way. Then they examined the way rumours spread through such a (simulated) network to see what roles strong and weak ties  play as the network changes over time.

What they found from these simulations is interesting.  As in the Facebook (and Granovetter) research, weak ties are the main vectors of information-dissemination.  But strong ties tend to play the opposite role — they hinder the spread of rumours because they confine information to a group that largely communicates with each other.

Of course this is all based on simulation models, but it does have one very interesting potential resonance — with Steve Clarke’s hypothesis about the bi-modal fate of online conspiracy theories in his “Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development” article [Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, Volume 4, Issue 2, 2007, pp. 167-180.]  I haven’t read Clarke’s article for ages.  Must dig it out.