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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Is public opinion part of a complex system?

The worrisome likelihood that Russians and other malevolent actors are tinkering with public opinion in Western Europe and the United States through social media creates various kinds of anxiety. Are our democratic values so fragile that a few thousand Facebook or Twitter memes could put us on a different plane about important questions like anti-Muslim bigotry, racism, intolerance, or fanaticism about guns? Can a butterfly in Minsk create a thunderstorm of racism in Cincinnati? Have white supremacy and British ultra-nationalism gone viral?

There is an interesting analogy here with the weather. The weather next Wednesday is the net consequence of a number of processes and variables, none of which are enormously difficult to analyze. But in their complex interactions they create outcomes that are all but impossible to forecast over a period of more than three days. And this suggests the interesting idea that perhaps public opinion is itself the result of complex and chaotic processes that give rise to striking forms of non-linear change over time.

Can we do a better job of understanding the dynamics of public opinion by making use of the tools of complexity theory? Here is a summary description of complex systems provided by John Holland in Complexity: A Very Short Introduction:

Complexity, once an ordinary noun describing objects with many interconnected parts, now designates a scientific field with many branches. A tropical rainforest provides a prime example of a complex system. The rainforest contains an almost endless variety of species—one can walk a hundred paces without seeing the same species of tree twice, and a single tree may host over a thousand distinct species of insects. The interactions between these species range from extreme generalists (‘ army’ ants will consume most anything living in their path) to extreme specialists (Darwin’s ‘comet orchid’, with a foot-long nectar tube, can only be pollinated by a particular moth with a foot-long proboscis—neither would survive without the other). Adaptation in rainforests is an ongoing, relatively rapid process, continually yielding new interactions and new species (orchids, closely studied by Darwin, are the world’s most rapidly evolving plant form). This lush, persistent variety is almost paradoxical because tropical rainforests develop on the poorest of soils—the rains quickly leach all nutrients into the nearest creek. What makes such variety possible? (1)

Let’s consider briefly how public opinion might fit into the framework of complexity theory. On the positive side, public opinion has some of the dynamic characteristics of systems that are often treated as being complex: non-linearity, inflection points, critical mass. Like a disease, a feature of public opinion can suddenly “go viral” – reproduce many times more rapidly than in previous periods. And the collective phenomenon of public opinion has a feature of “self-causation” that finds parallels in other kinds of systems – a sudden increase in the currency of a certain attitude or belief can itself accelerate the proliferation of the belief more broadly.