What social media data could tell us about the future

What social media data could tell us about the future
Can a flow of information across Twitter signal when a momentous event is about to occur? Northeastern’s Alessandro Vespignani and an interdisciplinary group of scientists developed a method to find out. Their findings represent an initial step in constructing models to detect trouble before it’s too late. Credit: YoungHee Jang/Northeastern University

Northeastern's Alessandro Vespignani, Sternberg Family Distinguished University Professor of physics, computer science, and health sciences, has teamed up with an interdisciplinary group of scientists to develop an innovative method to map how tweets about large-scale social events spread. Using massive twitter datasets and sophisticated quantitative measures, it tracks how information about political protests, large business acquisitions, and other "collective phenomena" gather momentum, peak, and fall over time, from city to city, and where the impetus comes from for that trajectory.

The findings, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, is only a first step, notes coauthor Nicola Perra, a former research associate at Northeastern's Network Science Institute. But knowing the characteristics of that buildup could, in the future, enable us to prepare ahead of time for undesirable repercussions from such events, with implications for crises from earthquakes to power-grid failures.

"A lot of people have analyzed social media in terms of the volume of tweets regarding particular phenomena such as the Arab Spring," says Vespignani, who is also the director of the Network Science Institute. "What we are trying to understand is the presence of precursors: Can we find a signal in the flow of information that will tell us something big is about to happen? That's the multimillion-dollar question."

Borrowing from neuroscience

In an interdisciplinary leap, the researchers turned to network modeling in neuroscience to conduct the study. "For the brain we map based on physiology, and for social aggregates, like those in this paper, we map on geography," says Vespignani.

In neuroscience network modeling, the "nodes," or centers of activity, are functional brain areas—say, the motor cortex, which is responsible for movement—and the "links" connecting the nodes are neural circuits. For example, the circuits connecting the to the auditory cortex, which is responsible for hearing, trace a neural pathway, or "link," that enables us to tap our foot to a beat and even dance.

In this new, social-events study, the nodes are cities—for example, Madrid and Barcelona in the researchers' analysis of twitter transmission during the 2011 Spanish anti-austerity movement—and the links are the pathways the tweets take over time.

Consider the Spanish protest, which later sparked the Occupy Wall St. movement in the U.S. The tweets gained in volume and intensity until, says Vespignani, they reached a "social tipping point of collective phenomenon" on May 20, 2011. "You create a system that starts from a few nodes that then drive others, and so on, until everybody is talking to everybody else in a full coordination of the information," he explains.

The quantitative identification of those drivers sets this new method apart from other approaches to tracking , says Perra, who is now a senior lecturer at London's University of Greenwich. "It enables us to understand which city is driving the conversation when and to characterize the dynamics of the spread."

"Before you can develop a method to predict future events," he adds, "you need a quantitative understanding of the communication patterns that shaped past events."

Looking to the future

Laying the groundwork for predictive studies is what Vespignani and his colleagues are attempting to do with this analysis of five major social events: the 2011 protest in Spain; the 2013 protest in Brazil, known as the "Brazilian Autumn"; the release of a Hollywood blockbuster in 2012; and Google's acquisition of Motorola in 2014.

"Everyone wants to predict when the next big event is going to be, what will trend in the future," says Perra. "We are, as a research community, in the early stages of understanding this type of phenomena. There is very little understanding of even past events, so we are very far from prediction. But in the future our findings may lead us to that."

Explore further

Protest activity can be predicted by social media, study finds

More information: J. Borge-Holthoefer et al. The dynamics of information-driven coordination phenomena: A transfer entropy analysis, Science Advances (2016). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501158
Journal information: Science Advances

Citation: What social media data could tell us about the future (2016, April 7) retrieved 17 September 2019 from https://techxplore.com/news/2016-04-social-media-future.html
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Apr 07, 2016
This is the reason we have to stop governmental spying.

If you think they are not spying on you, look up room 641A of the ATT building in SF.

As a former Air Force electronic spook, I understand the dangers here.

Most folk do not.

Apr 07, 2016
"""""This is the reason we have to stop governmental spying.""""""

Cher, there is nothing in the article about spying. It's about social media, you know, public stuffs that are out in the open.

""""""If you think they are not spying on you, look up room 641A of the ATT building in SF."""""""

Anybody with half a brain knows they are spying. All governments do. All governments have special departments to do it. And they always have since the beginning of time. And they probably always will.

""""""As a former Air Force electronic spook, I understand the dangers here.""""""

How does that have anything to do with the article? Why you think every article is an invitation from the management for you to tell us about you? And that electronic spook training you had sure did not teach you very much.

What kind of spook would not know that postuming you name, address, social security stuffs on the interweb is a really stupid thing to do?

Apr 07, 2016
I think Ira needs a job. And since he has no experience in electronic reconnaissance, perhaps his opinion is not worth much.

But the spread of government into every aspect of our lives is worrisome, even if some may like it. The ATT story shows the ILLEGAL spying on us during the Baby Bush Years.

The uninformed here can make fun of the warning, like the one we gave about the Bush Wars being setups to fool the ignorant and emotional into profitable invasions and the takeover of other nations.

Apr 07, 2016
"""""I think Ira needs a job"""""

Got a good job me.

""""""The uninformed here can make fun of the warning,""""""

And the informed here can make fun with you and your warning because you did not even read the article enough to know it was not about spying. It was about what peoples do out in the open for everyone to see.

Oh yeah, I almost forget. Why you worried about the government spying on you anyway? You ought to be a lot more worried about that mental conditions you have that causes you to put all your personal information on the physorg article for the whole world to see.

Apr 07, 2016
Ira, if you can't see past the first step, do not try to argue.


Apr 07, 2016
"""""""Ira, if you can't see past the first step, do not try to argue."""""

Well if you can't see what the article is about, and no, it was not about you or your spying "experience", do not try to begin the comments with all your "imaged" past glories. You are the only one that thinks everybody reading the articles here need to know what an "experienced" person you are. Choot, the article don't have anything to do with spying at all.


De rien Cher, not a problem at all.

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