Events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have again raised questions about how we are influenced when we communicate with others online. A new study, “Communication in Online Social Networks Fosters Cultural Isolation” published in Hindawi’s open access journal Complexity, suggests that, far from building consensus, social media is isolating both groups and individuals.
Researchers have developed many theoretical models to describe how people share their thoughts and influence each other’s cultural traits (such as their politics or their views about art). Broadly speaking, the more two people talk, the more alike their traits become. However, most models are based on two people talking directly to each other: a “one-to-one” form of communication. These models often fail to capture the disagreement and fragmentation seen on social media.
Co-authors Marijn A. Keijzer, Michael Mäs, and Andreas Flache from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands adjusted one of these models so that it better represented the “one-to-many” communication (sending a message to several people at once) seen on social media. They then used this model to see what happened when computer-simulated “agents” communicated with each other over several rounds.
To make sure the simulations were accurate, the researchers studied different social networks, including those mimicking the structure of real ones online.
Their results showed that “one-to-many” communication creates more isolation than “one-to-one” communication. In a highly connected social network, agents using one-to-many communication rapidly built consensus in their local neighbourhoods, effectively isolating anyone who disagreed with the group’s principles.
The authors hope that further research will now use their updated model to examine other characteristics of social media – for example, the impact of fake news or personalised content filtering. As people become more isolated from each other online, discovering how it all begins may help to bridge the online divide in the future.
Marijn A. Keijzer, Michael Mäs, and Andreas Flache, “Communication in Online Social Networks Fosters Cultural Isolation”, Complexity, vol. 2018, Article ID 9502872, 18 pages, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/9502872.
This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.