Fake News and Phase Transitions: The Physics of Social Interaction

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Supporters of opposing teams at a football match, aligned according to team preference

Aristotle characterized humans as zoon logon echon, the rational animal. In general, we like to believe that our opinions are formed through reason—that we have arrived at them by means of a process of weighing the alternatives, selecting that which we deem most appropriate. This implies a certain mutual intelligibility—I might not share your opinion, but I should be able to appreciate why you hold it.

Yet, with—it seems—increasing frequency, we find ourselves baffled by others’ opinions. Who could, in this day and age, earnestly believe that the Earth is flat? How can a president hold a nearly steady approval rating of over 40%, despite an unprecedented record of lies, scandals, and incompetence?

One might thus conclude that Aristotle somewhat overstated his case. But the issue is more complex: those holding odd beliefs are not typically less intelligent. An answer may be found in the way modern communication media have restructured society, leading to the process of opinion-formation no longer chiefly taking place at the individual, but at the collective level, largely unmoored from concerns of factuality and appropriateness. This is best understood by studying the physics of phase transitions. Read more »