Tipping the scale

ByDr. Giovanni Tapang
Prometheus Bound / Manila Times

Public opinion, in theory, is the sum of all the views, attitudes and beliefs of a community on a particular topic. How society views an issue is important in politics, elections and in other spheres such as culture, fashion and the arts. Typically, through interaction and communication, a consensus is built on a particular issue (usually through a substantial number of individuals holding the same beliefs) which in turn exerts influence, directly or indirectly, on others.

We sometimes use polls to arrive at a sample public opinion. The results of these surveys gives us the current “pulse” of the times. Although the number of respondents may seem small (typically 1200 or so), statistical survey methdologies (if done properly) give one a powerful tool to predict the general sense from only a handful. The idea behind elections is that it is a direct sampling of opinions of the voting population on candidates and their platforms. Of course, this is premised on the assumption that elections are done properly, i.e. without fraud.

There are other ways used to gauge public opinion. One is the level of public participation in events related to an issue. The frequency and number of protests in other countries signalled a shift in public opinion that heralded the end of autocratic regimes. In fashion, one can directly see how clothing styles shift from one trend to another.

Google has an interesting way to measure public opinion based on searches done in its portal. One can visit Google Zeitgeist and Google Trends to see this in real time. Trending picked up a new connotation when coupled with the social microblogging site Twitter, as we recall viral videos in YouTube being talked about in Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Cyberspace and media exposure makes the shaping of public opinion faster.

Last month, an article written by J. Xie and co-authors from the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in New York came out of the scientific journal Physical Review E reporting that a “prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction… of … committed” individuals who “consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence.” They found that the critical fraction of unwavering individuals needed to eventually reverse the majority is just one tenth of the population.

They modeled the population as a network of individuals connected to each other and calculated the time needed to spread a belief through the network from each individual nodes. Each one holds a particular particular position and can in turn be influenced to change belief by other nodes connected to them. As the unwavering fraction of the population start to convince more and more people, the prevailing position change. Through the inherent interactions within society itself, the relationship between dominant and minority can indeed change.

What is important in their work was that they have shown that this unwavering fraction need to be only around 10%. Anything less than that would result in a very long time to influence everyone. Higher than 10% causes a rapid change in general opinion. The authors also have shown that their results hold for random connections (Erdos-Renyi networks) and small-world networks (similar to friendship connections).

Aside from showing what critical number is needed to influence public opinion, the authors of the paper also hint at its use in optimizing disaster warning systems where one needs to quickly mobilize a town or village to move in the light of an incoming hazard. One can also imagine its implications in preventing the spread of disease that can lead to outbreaks or epidemics.

The researchers are quick to note that what they did was to show how a singe prevailing opinion can be changed through committed agents. They want to extend their model into a population that is polarized, where instead instead of holding one prevailing view, they would instead hold two opposing viewpoints such as Democrat or Republican.

Note that although the model abstracts a lot from reality, it indicates the critical tipping point at which opinion can form. It has several requirements, a committed and unwavering tenth of the population, the open mindness of the rest and communication between them (the links in the network). That some autocratic regimes would weaken the last link to prevent interaction is an indication of the veracity of the model.

The harsh realities of current society is a fertile opinion-changing situation that tell us that there has to be a better world than where we are right now. Maybe all we need is to be part of that committed one-tenth to achieve the tipping point towards a better future.

Dr. Tapang is the chairperson of AGHAM-Advocates of Science and Technology for the People.

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