Opinion: the network theory of attitudes may show how sharing our opinions in online communities can join us together or split us apart

As we’ve seen with Brexit and the Trump election, social influence works differently in digital societies. Companies like Cambridge Analytica are selling influence to anyone who will pay for it. Our online communities are packed with bots that seem like real people but are producing social influence for commercial or political interests.

Right now, we don't know how much influence they have or how to resist it. For example, Vote Leave breached spending limits to double down on their social media campaigns, but they now claim that the extra spend could not have changed the result of the Brexit referendum. So which is it? Are our societies vulnerable to social media influence by companies like Cambridge Analytica or are these worries over-hyped? At the moment, it’s hard to tell because our usual models and metaphors treat attitudes as things inside people’s heads, rather than things that flow through networks.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Brainstorm contributor Professor Alan Smeaton from DCU's Insight Centre for Data Analytics on Facebook And Cambridge Analytica

The network theory of attitudes is a simple idea that has profound implications, if true. This is the theory that when two people hold the same attitude, they are linked together as a result, like two people holding strings to the same balloon. When different people are holding the same bunch of attitudes, they are grouped together and different groups are distinguishable by the different sets of attitudes they are holding. If you take two groups and get them to agree on something (like opposition to immigration), you can sew the groups together. When you agitate disagreement, you can create schisms that rip them apart. So when cleverly crafted social media campaigns get us to agree or disagree with posts on social media, they are subtly shifting our group allegiances.

This is a radical way to think about attitudes for two reasons. Firstly, we usually think of attitudes as things that are uniquely ours. We think they’re personal and that we can decide for ourselves what they’re going to be. But if attitudes are things that bind us together or tell our groups apart, we must accept that they ripple through networks. And when they do, "our" attitudes are expressions of our group membership in the same way that the movements of starlings in a murmuration are individual expressions of the motion of the flock.

A small group can create perceptions that there is more support for a position than is actually the case

In well-functioning societies, this can be good for individual people, groups and political processes. Shared attitudes are the basis for collective identity and empowerment, and group identities can be configured so that inclusivity and diversity of opinion is itself a marker of belonging. The Together For Yes campaign was an excellent example of this (and, in line with the theory, expressing my appreciation here makes it clear to you where my allegiances lie). But it is also possible for the attitude landscape to fragment along partisan lines, making virtually any attitude expression a polarising shibboleth. This is evident in the way that the familiar social fabrics in the US and UK are unravelling in response to Trump and Brexit politics.

Secondly, the process also works in reverse. As individual starlings respond to the flock, individual people are shaped by their networks. So if influencers inject just the right kind of information in just the right places, they might be able to split the flock, join subgroups together and possibly nudge groups in directions they wouldn’t otherwise have taken.

The feature (or bug) that makes digital social networks particularly useful for influencers is that each person gets a unique view of the "flock" so bots and trolls can easily create a sense of perceived consensus that doesn’t actually exist. A small group can create perceptions that there is more support for a position than is actually the case. This has clearly been a factor in the resurgence of the right in the UK.

From RTÉ 2fm's Chris & Ciara Show, Blindboy from The Rubberbandits' open letter to Limerick

But perhaps the most interesting upshot of the theory is this: the points of influence where groups are patched together or torn asunder may have dubious links to the social issue being targeted. I followed Rubberbandits for pictures of otters, and now I find myself deeply concerned about the fate of Ormston House because these things are closely linked in the attitude network of "things that Limerick people support."

So it may be that the internet is influencing major political decisions by virtue of a shared love of cat photos. But, more plausibly, influencers are able to use issues with little policy relevance (like "Hillary’s emails") to shape the landscape of group allegiances and nudge political behaviour this way or that.

This network theory of attitudes – if true –will help us to understand how sharing attitudes in networks joins us together or splits us apart. Used wisely, this knowledge will help us to understand how societies can be resilient or vulnerable to social influence – both online and offline – and we will be able to develop better platforms and policies for online interactions that produce robust inclusive and cohesive collective attitudes. Just don’t let the marketers get hold of it.

The author has been awarded almost €1.5 million in European Research Council funding to investigate the dynamics of social influence in digital societies. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ