People tend to think of the arena of politics as being driven by human decision and emotions, and therefore unpredictable. But network scientists like Boleslaw Szymanski, a computer science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have found that the country’s political activity – from American society’s ever-growing partisan divide to its grappling with the spread of misinformation online – can be explained by abstract and elegant models.
These models provide insights — and even answers — to a number of pressing questions: Is increasing access to information driving us apart? Can an entrenched minority ultimately prevail? Could structural changes be made that insulate us from misinformation and reduce the polarization that divides us?
Szymanski studies the technical underpinnings of our choices, how we influence one another, and the impact of the algorithms we rely upon to navigate a growing ocean of information. His work has yielded fascinating insights, including research on how a committed minority will overcome less determined opposition and the development of a parameter to determine what drives polarization in Congress.
Through his research on the influence of minority opinions, Szymanski found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, it will ultimately be adopted by the majority of the society.
“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said Szymanski, a computer science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”
In his present work, Szymanski is researching tools for measuring the level of polarization in specific news sites, search engines, and social media services, and developing remedies, like algorithms that offer better data provenance, detect misinformation, and create internal consistency reasoning, background consistency reasoning, and intra-element consistency reasoning tools.
“Informed citizens are the foundation of democracy, but the driving interest of big companies that supply information is to sell us a product,” Szymanski said. “The way they do that on the internet is to repeat what we showed interest in. They’re not interested in a reader’s growth — they’re interested in the reader’s continued attention.”
With the political environment becoming increasingly bitter and dubious information becoming ever more prevalent, Szymanski is available to discuss his research on polarization, disinformation, and the power of a committed minority.