Extremism and curdled milk are more similar than you might imagine


Physicists find that internet hate groups can be described using a theory that predicts the formation of gels. Phil Dooley reports.


Internet-based hatred is a collective, not an individual, act.
Internet-based hatred is a collective, not an individual, act.
C.J. Burton / Getty Images

The same theory that explains milk going off can be used to model the rise of extremism and hate on the internet, physicists have found.

Neil Johnson from the University of Miami in the US led a team that studied the rise of ISIS-related social media groups during 2014. They found that gel theory – which describes how cross linkages form between molecules in a liquid and thus make it behave more like a solid – can be used to predict how networks of extremism will suddenly blossom.

Johnson’s background is in superconductivity, in which multiple electrons link together and suddenly show very different electrical behaviour.

He says the linked behaviour has many similarities to human behaviour, so to search for individuals to blame for the sudden rise of extremism is fruitless.

“You can’t say there is one electron guilty of superconductivity, [because] it arises out of an interaction,” he says.

“It’s not like one person is bad, and grabs those around them. There are microscopic pockets of badness forming and usually nothing really happens and you don’t notice. But occasionally they gel together and it gets big.”

The team’s work is published in the journal Physical Review Letters, and describes how the researcher enlisted the help of linguists, social scientists and machine-learning to identify ISIS-supporting social media groups on the Russian social networking site VKontakte.

“For all its bad press, Facebook is quite quick at closing down these groups,” says Johnson.

“VKontakte are slower at closing down extremist groups, which allows us to study their rich dynamics.”

The team found it had to extend gel theory to account for different types of extremism. While in milk there is only one type of curdling, extremism can take several forms: some individuals are violent, others want to travel to the relevant regions, and others just want to provide financial support.

Accounting for these differences, the team accurately modelled extremism on VKontakte from the time ISIS was first named in early 2014 to the “gelation” event, the explosion of ISIS support at the end of the same year.

“When certain individuals became infamous in the media, we could trace them back through the groups they had been in,” Johnson reveals.

“It’s not some random unpredictable transition. You can derive a time after they start looking around that the gel forms.”

Johnson contrasts his theory with law agencies that search for an individual person “who is responsible”.

“It’s a change of focus to where physics can do something useful. Physics thinks about the correlations between objects, how connected they are - it’s the connections that drive the behaviour.”

Contrib phildooley new.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Phil Dooley is an Australian freelance writer, presenter, musician and videomaker. He has a PhD in laser physics, has been a science communicator for the world's largest fusion experiment JET and has performed in science shows and festivals from Adelaide to Glasgow. Under the banner of Phil Up On Science he runs science pub nights around the country and a YouTube channel.
  1. https://arxiv.org/abs/0705.4591
  2. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.048301
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