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The tangle of online social media sights provided one researcher with a new direction for studying the physics of systems. He and multi-disciplinary colleagues have applied complex systems and data science to the dynamics of online group trends, trying to uncover better ways for engaging with information.

Listen and learn

  • How his studies progressed through the years from excitons and correlated connections to Isis communities to today’s online vaccine debates,
  • What three elements of force they’ve identified that act on a participant in such groups, and
  • How a map of the forces of trends and opinion might lead to better solutions and improved engagement.

Neil Johnson is a professor of physics at George Washington University. He’s spent his career studying the surprising things that happen when you combine objects.

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For example, he describes all the ways water molecules can have huge impacts under different conditions just by putting them together: ice skating, the titanic wreck, bubbles emitting from boiling. “When something is collected,” he says, “things happen that you would never predict.

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While his early studies involved excitons, which are collections of positive and negative particles, he migrated to other collections and eventually to data science real-world applications. He researched the formation of online extremism as seen by Isis communities combining and separating, like gears and wheels, impacting each other in various ways, which became a type of crime network analysis.

But he and his colleagues are working on possibly the most complex and hard-to-pin-down collection yet: social media groupings that form opinions on platforms like Facebook. They’re taking on these data science real-time projects from a physicist’s perspective of force and reaction. What are the tipping forces? How do sudden shifts evolve?

The competition between three essential forces interests them: each individual’s internal compass, some external field like news sources, and local interactions with other objects within one’s community such as neighbors.

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“You can’t win any misinformation battle without a map of the battlefield,” he adds. By understanding how forces exert pressures and having a map with the dynamics better evaluated, our information sharing methods and means can hopefully improve.

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