Stewardship of global collective behavior

Collective behavior provides a framework for understanding how the actions and properties of groups emerge from the way individuals generate and share information. In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies. Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises. We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have, with a focus on providing actionable insight to policymakers and regulators for the stewardship of social systems.

Collective behavior historically referred to instances in which groups of humans or animals exhibited coordinated action in the absence of an obvious leader (1–4): from billions of locusts, extending over hundreds of kilometers, devouring vegetation as they move onward; to schools of fish convulsing like some animate fluid while under attack from predators; to our own societies, characterized by cities, with buildings and streets full of color and sound, alive with activity. The characteristic feature of all of these systems is that social interactions among the individual organisms give rise to patterns and structure at higher levels of organization, from the formation of vast mobile groups

— source | Joseph B. Bak-Coleman, Mark Alfano, Wolfram Barfuss, Elke U. Weber | Jun 21, 2021

Nullius in verba


Trump has turned words into weapons. And he’s winning the linguistic war

Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself.

Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.

Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.

Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said “I am not a crook” and people thought of him as a crook.

Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly don’t. So the

— source | George P Lakoff, Gil Duran | 13 Jun 2018

Nullius in verba

Is Your Phone Actually Draining Your Brain?

Shayla Love: This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. I’m Shayla Love.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re trying to get some work done, and you find yourself continually picking up your cell phone. In frustration, you might slam the phone down beside you and swear to leave it alone—theoretically allowing you to focus on what you’re doing.

Right now my phone is sitting next to me untouched. But have I really protected myself from its distractions or its ability to impact my mind? The answer is no, according to a well-known study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research from 2017 entitled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”

Cognitive and social psychologist Adrian Ward and his colleagues proposed the “brain drain hypothesis” by showing that just having a phone next to you could impact cognition—specifically, working memory, or the mental system that helps us hold information about what we’re currently doing at a given moment.

Ward: The way we measure it is by having people remember words and solve math problems at the same time. And the idea there is that those are two very different cognitive skills,

— source | Dec 20, 2022

Nullius in verba

The tunes you hum, books you read, rows you have

Twitter and co are shaping your world

‘I didn’t do it to make more money. I did it to try to help humanity.” Elon Musk in his own words on buying Twitter. He follows in the footsteps of fellow multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2017 published a “manifesto” for Facebook, setting out how he wanted it to help save humanity from itself.

Delusions of grandeur in wildly rich men aren’t unusual, so it’s tempting to scoff, then move on. But they are right to claim that their ownership of huge social media platforms confers significant power – in their heads, to do good, but, for the rest of us, to create harms spanning mental health to child safety to health misinformation. Zuckerberg’s manifesto didn’t stop Facebook helping stoke violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia.

Musk’s first actions as the new owner of Twitter have been to sack the whole board, dramatically cut its headcount and get rid of its human rights team. Twitter’s moderation policies have always been highly opaque, taking a permissive approach to racist abuse while

— source | Sonia Sodha | 5 Nov 2022

Nullius in verba

The Dark Psychology of Social Networks

Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.

Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.

For example, in “Federalist No. 10,” James Madison wrote about his fear of the power of “faction,” by which he meant strong partisanship or group interest that “inflamed [men] with mutual animosity” and made them forget about the common good. He thought that the vastness of the United States might offer some protection from the ravages of factionalism,

— source | Jonathan Haidt, Tobias Rose-Stockwell | Dec 2019

Nullius in verba

Your smartphone is ruining your memory

Last week, I missed a real-life meeting because I hadn’t set a reminder on my smartphone, leaving someone I’d never met before alone in a café. But on the same day, I remembered the name of the actor who played Will Smith’s aunt in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 (Janet Hubert). Memory is weird, unpredictable and, neuroscientifically, not yet entirely understood. When memory lapses like mine happen (which they do, a lot), it feels both easy and logical to blame the technology we’ve so recently adopted. Does having more memory in our pockets mean there’s less in our heads? Am I losing my ability to remember things – from appointments to what I was about to do next – because I expect my phone to do it for me? Before smartphones, our heads would have held a cache of phone numbers and our memories would contain a cognitive map, built up over time, which would allow us to navigate – for smartphone users, that is no longer true.

Our brains and our smartphones form a complex web of interactions: the smartphonification of life has been rising since the mid 2000s, but was accelerated by the pandemic, as was internet use in general. Prolonged periods of stress, isolation and exhaustion – common themes since March 2020 – are well known for their impact on memory. Of those surveyed by memory researcher Catherine Loveday in 2021, 80% felt that their memories were worse than before the pandemic. We are – still – shattered, not just by Covid-19, but also by the

— source | Rebecca Seal | 6 Jul 2022

Nullius in verba

How Facebook Programmed Our Relatives

Three years ago, on his birthday, a law professor watched his e-mail inbox fill with Facebook notifications indicating that friends had posted messages on his wall. The messages made him sad. The clogged inbox was annoying, but what really upset him was having disclosed his birth date to Facebook in the first place. It’s not necessary for social networking or to comply with privacy laws, as some people mistakenly believe. He hadn’t paid much attention when he signed up—as with most electronic contracts, there was no room for negotiation or deliberation about terms. He complied with Facebook’s instructions, entered the data and clicked a button.

A few days later, the law professor decided to change the birth date on his Facebook profile to avoid the same situation next year. But when the fake date rolled around, his inbox again flooded with Facebook notifications. Two of the messages were from close relatives, one of whom he had spoken with on the phone on his actual birthday!

How could she not realize that the date was fake?

Our hypothesis: she’d been programmed!

That law professor was one of us (Brett Frischmann), and it confirmed his suspicions that most people respond automatically to Facebook’s prompts to provide information or contact a friend without really thinking much about it. That’s because digital networked technologies are engineering humans to behave like simple stimulus-response machines.

— source | Brett Frischmann | Jun 21, 2018