It seems inconceivable that more Norwegians—among the world’s gentlest, most liberal people—could subscribe to the fascist manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, the 32-year-old Norwegian who massacred 68 people in Oslo and hopes his actions will inspire more terrorist strikes.
We heard how the majority of Pakistanis abhor fundamentalism—and then we struggled?to?understand how lawyers from that majority showered rose petals on the Islamist policeman who assassinated a Pakistani governor for speaking out against the misuse of a blasphemy law.
Here in India, people of a liberal persuasion, such as this columnist, often tell ourselves that the abusive trolls on Twitter and similar self-declared nationalists of the Hindu right may be louder than ever, but they can never be a majority.
Well, it now appears the belief of a billion can emerge from the babble of no more than 100 million.
If 10% of a population holds an unyielding belief, that conviction will almost always spread through society and be adopted by the majority, says a paper due to be published in the journal Physical Review E.
Also Read | Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns
In an article titled “Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities,” scientists at the US army’s Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC), used computer models and other analytical methods to identify this tipping point. The study emerges from a new field of research called network science, combining varied disciplines, such as sociology, biology, physics, computer science and engineering.
The new finding explains how minority voices of hate spread with mystifying speed. Those tipping points obviously come faster than we imagine, driven by an underlying human desire to achieve consensus.
Of course, significant good can come from such tipping points. It could explain the spread of innovations, such as the iPhone and iPad. It partially explains the buzz around philanthropy after Warren Buffett and Bill Gates launched their great wealth giveaway, though it isn’t clear if their message of generosity has reached a tipping point. It could explain the winds of change sweeping through the Arab world after police beat a street vendor in Tunisia; how online social networks changed the convictions of a quiet, quiescent majority; how dictators of decades were overthrown in weeks.
It is important to note, says SCNARC director Boleslaw Szymanski, that in situations where the committed minority is below 10%, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. “It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe (he means never, since the universe is between 10 and 20 billion years old, depending on who you ask) for this size group to reach the majority,” says Szymanski. “Once that number grows above 10%, the idea spreads like flame.”
So how did the scientists come to this conclusion?
They created three types of computer models representing three types of social networks. In the first, everyone in the network was connected to one another. In the second, certain people—call them leaders or opinion shapers—were connected to a larger group of people. In the third, every person was as connected as everyone else.
These models were much as societies tend to be. Traditional views tend to dominate. Each individual holds a view, but is reasonably open-minded and desires consensus. When people with unshakeable beliefs were infused into these traditional-thinking groups, there were ripples initially. If a listener held the same belief as the speaker, it reinforced her belief. If listener and speaker differed, the listener moved on, but when more people held the same view as the first speaker, the listener tended to adopt these views. Agents of change were important to reach tipping points; it was not enough if those of unshakeable belief convinced only those close to them. When the big changes in thought came, they came fast and beyond the tipping points, minority opinion quickly took over majority opinion.
Given the ubiquitous presence of human, natural and artificial networks in modern life, the study of network science encompasses terrorism, war (which is why armies are interested), friendship, disease transmission and, obviously, the Internet and its constituents, such as Facebook and Twitter.
The growth of the Internet and the rise of computing have particularly helped generate data and extract knowledge from a variety of networks, most of which have an underlying mathematical order, as the related science of synchrony or complexity informs us.
“For reasons we don’t yet understand, the tendency to synchronize is one of the most pervasive drives in the universe, extending from atoms to animals, from people to planets,” says Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz in the book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. Think of the coherence of a laser beam, trillions of atoms pulsing in concert, or the convulsions of epilepsy, arising from millions of brain cells misfiring in tandem. Now, if only we could get those cells to discard their majority view.
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times and Mint. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org