“There are tech­niques you can em­ploy that al­low you to foster de­sir­able prop­er­ties and re­in­force pos­i­tive be­hav­iours.”

NI­CHOLAS CHRISTAKIS, Yale pro­fes­sor, on how to ma­nip­u­late so­cial net­works.

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N ever mind the self­ies; we can ma­nip­u­late so­cial me­dia to make the world a bet­ter place, says Dr. Ni­cholas Christakis. The pro­fes­sor of so­cial and nat­u­ral sci­ence at Yale Univer­sity was speak­ing to Cam­paign on the side­lines of the re­cently held In­ter­na­tional Govern­ment Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Fo­rum in Shar­jah, UAE.

Talk of in­flu­encers in so­cial me­dia tends to in­volve nar­cis­sis­tic 20-some­things with blogs about make-up. But clicks, likes and fol­low­ers aren’t the only mea­sure of in­flu­ence. Users of so­cial me­dia can be stud­ied sci­en­tif­i­cally to see how their ac­tions af­fect oth­ers.

There are three pri­mary ways that so­cial me­dia can be ma­nip­u­lated to “in­crease our health, our wealth, our cre­ativ­ity, our co­op­er­a­tion, our civic life and our se­cu­rity,” says Christakis. Th­ese are: con­nec­tion, con­ta­gion and po­si­tion.

Con­nec­tion is how net­works are struc­tured, and who is con­nected to who. “It’s like the wiring pat­tern of a net­work,” says Christakis. “You could take a group of peo­ple and con­nect them one way, or you could take the same peo­ple and con­nect them in a dif­fer­ent way.”

The second cat­e­gory is con­ta­gion. “Given a pat­tern of con­nec­tions, given that I am con­nected to you and you to her, and what­ever the con­nec­tions are in a group,” he says, “Who should you target in that group to cre­ate an ar­ti­fi­cial tip­ping point? Who is that most struc­turally in­flu­en­tial, or what is the most struc­turally in­flu­en­tial sub­group of peo­ple?”

This sub­group, says Christakis, is that one that, “if you de­liver an in­ter­ven­tion to them, ev­ery­one copies them.” That is not un­like those tweet­ing mil­len­ni­als, but th­ese users are found through their struc­tural po­si­tion rather than num­ber of con­nec­tions alone.

The third cat­e­gory of ma­nip­u­la­tion is po­si­tion. “Po­si­tion is that, given that you have a set of peo­ple and given that you have a par­tic­u­lar struc­ture, where should the peo­ple be put within the net­work?”

For ex­am­ple, he says: “Imag­ine you have a work­place and you have some peo­ple who are very en­er­gis­ing and lift up their co-work­ers. Or imag­ine you have peo­ple who stim­u­late other peo­ple’s cre­ativ­ity. If you were a thought­ful man­ager you would think about not just the struc­ture of your work groups but who you put where.”

Christakis’ in­sight comes from ex­per­i­ments car­ried out mainly in public health set­tings, and ma­nip­u­lat­ing the struc­ture of groups on­line.

Such changes are like re­struc­tur­ing car­bon atoms. Con­nect them one way and you get soft, dark graphite. But as­sem­ble the same car­bon atoms an­other way and you will get di­a­mond: hard and clear.

“You could take a group of peo­ple and con­nect them one way, or you could take the same peo­ple and con­nect them in a dif­fer­ent way.”

“There are two key in­tel­lec­tual ideas there,” he says. “First of all, th­ese prop­er­ties of soft­ness and dark­ness and hard­ness and clear­ness aren’t prop­er­ties of the car­bon atoms; they are prop­er­ties of the col­lec­tion of car­bon atoms. Th­ese are known as emer­gent prop­er­ties.

“Second, which prop­er­ties you get de­pends on how you con­nect the car­bon atoms to each other. It’s the same with hu­man groups. I can take a group of peo­ple and con­nect them in one way and they are very kind to each other, and very cre­ative and healthy. Or I can take the same group of peo­ple and con­nect them in a dif­fer­ent struc­ture and they are none of those things: they are un­kind to each other, or un­healthy or un­pro­duc­tive.”

In the public health field, ma­nip­u­la­tion of emer­gent prop­er­ties might be ap­plied to web­sites to link up peo­ple try­ing to quit smok­ing or to share in­for­ma­tion be­tween di­a­bet­ics about in­sulin shots, side ef­fects and diet tips.

The peo­ple in those on­line net­works can be or­gan­ised so they re­in­force each other’s good be­hav­iour or so they re­in­force one an­other’s bad be­hav­iour.

“There are tech­niques you can de­ploy,” says Christakis: “con­nec­tion, con­ta­gion and po­si­tion – that al­low you to foster de­sir­able prop­er­ties in this group, re­in­force pos­i­tive be­hav­iours for ex­am­ple.”

The tech­niques are a dou­bleedged sword, though. “Dual-use tech­nol­ogy,” Christakis calls them. Like nu­clear power and guns, he says, they can be used for good or ill. As an ex­am­ple, he says, he has done re­search into us­ing net­work in­ter­ven­tions to in­crease voter turnout. But the same tech­niques could be used by states or bod­ies that want to sup­press voter turnout.

“We have also done a lot of work on the spread­ing dy­nam­ics of truth and false­hood,” he adds. “Of course, we are in­ter­ested in in­creas­ing the spread of true in­for­ma­tion, but other coun­tries might be in­ter­ested in in­creas­ing the spread of false in­for­ma­tion.”

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