Societal Verification in the Connected Age

In Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, Duncan Watts discusses the capabilities and limits of predicting and utilizing both individual and group behavior trends. Unraveling the conceptual bases of some commonly-known studies (such as the small-world method and the strength of weak ties/balance theory), Watts explores the introductory premises of aggregations and networks. In analyzing the domino effect of the Keller-Allston line failure on August 10, 1996, he opens the conversation over how individual behavior can be aggregated to collective behavior. He claims that although individual behavior is often well interpreted, collective behavior can sometimes be undeterminable through aggregation: “although genes, like people, exist as identifiably individual units, they function by interacting, and the corresponding patterns of interactions can display almost unlimited complexity” (26). Do these claims challenge or extend your perspective on previous topics of this semester such as nuclear deterrence or the prisoner’s dilemma exercise? Contextualizing these ideas into the readings from this week, how do these ideas of networks and group dynamics play into the U.S.’s application of new media and crowdsourcing into its nonproliferation strategy?

Extending Watts’ ideas into the discussion of societal verification, which application examples seem most appropriate for implementation (considering the potential benefits, effectiveness, possible consequences, and vulnerability pitfalls)? In “Societal Verification: Leveraging the Information Revolution for Arms Control Verification,” Hinderstein and Hartigan state that “‘societal verification’ refers to the concept of incorporating non-traditional stakeholders into verification and transparency regimes to increase the likelihood that violations of international commitments are detected” (1). They note several State Department recommendations such as giving citizens the ability to detect radiation spikes with the use of sensors, employing the use of quick response codes, etc (5). How would you compare these examples of societal verification to the China/North Korea example in the Lee/Lewis/Hanham piece? Are there certain uses of data analytics that are prone to be more valuable or more misleading? Do some examples jeopardize the vulnerability of citizen privacy and anonymity more than others? — Zoë

5 thoughts on “Societal Verification in the Connected Age

  1. Watts notes that groups do not operate within a vacuum. The “patterns of interaction” between groups create complex scenarios, but these intra-group interactions are not the only layer of complexity in our analysis. Groups, like individuals, operate within a framework of rules and laws. The framework of international law creates yet another level of complexity to be added to the “patterns of interactions” between groups.

    A new study could investigate why groups break rules or laws by investigating “thresholds” for disobedience among both factions and individuals. The notion of disobedience thresholds would tie into Hinderstein and Hartigan’s discussion of third-party stakeholders as a mechanism to detect and deter violations. Two questions this new study could pose are:
    a. How does the presence of third-party groups or citizen verification affect a nation’s “disobedience” threshold with regards to nuclear disarmament?
    b. Is this threshold different in totalitarian regimes vs democracies?
    Hinderstein and Hartigan answer the first question, but only briefly touch on the second question. The second question would need to look at whether decision-making power in totalitarian regimes is more individual-centered or party-centered, and account for discrepancies between these two scenarios.

    Societal verification is likely to be more effective in democracies. People in a totalitarian regime may be afraid to report any findings of federal transgressions even if they are promised anonymity. Citizens of totalitarian states may also be paid or coerced into reporting false information. This is why the international community must take responsibility for verification in states that discourage “societal verification.” Of course, relying on the international cooperation poses its own challenges. However, citizens in China or North Korea may not believe they are being given true anonymity. In totalitarian regimes, false promises of anonymity are often given as a trap to catch dissidents.

  2. Although Duncan Watts provides a fascinating philosophical exploration of collective power over individual ability, I struggle to understand how “whole greater than sum of its parts” thinking can help us solve nuclear deterrence. After all, Watts is quick to to point out the million-dollar question in all these complex webs of calls and responses: is here really a leader? Do those that come next have a sense of following, or are they unconsciously leading in turn? Can there be an epicenter in a seemingly infinite social web of relationships? His cricket experiment demonstrates the paradox well: when many separate entities have been intersecting for years, how can we monitor their intersections without interrupting them? Yes, observation is relevant to nuclear futures. Formulated theories are important to the lay observer, who can afford to posit questions about the web of trust alliances and debate chicken-and-egg-type matters of who needs to make the first move. But nuclear countries cannot rely on these studies, because they are part of the game. Unless social and hard scientists can answer these seemingly limitless questions, the people within the web are only players, and indeed trying to manipulate the way those relationships play out seems a dangerous thing to do. Watts speaks as an outsider, scientifically observing the world, but I do not necessarily agree that web insiders, namely government and third-party nuclear actors, can realistically apply such observations to their perspective, because the theories only make sense in the context of the whole.

  3. Perhaps this is just due to limited exposure, but part of me finds it somewhat difficult to be fully on board with the efficacy of a widespread social-media motivated verification system for nuclear futures. On the one hand, I do see how social media can be extremely useful during times of crisis- in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a function in which we were able to check in and know that our loved ones are safe. Social media can also be extremely helpful in determining large-scale attitudes toward relevant social issues of that time.

    However, the thought of equipping a large proportion of the population with some type of nuclear sensor seems somewhat impractical to me. Moreover, I hesitate to rely too heavily on the layperson in identifying certain structures in that it may cause a frantic search for something that may not ever have truly been there in the first case. The ease with which misinformation can spread through social media also can hamper actual relevant verification needed.

    On the topic of data analysis, I believe there are actual multiple tools and techniques already to examine changes in behavior. From natural language processing to geographic tracking, we can learn a lot about an individuals behaviors and normal actions from their social media activity. Perhaps tracking these behaviors can be useful in determining suspicious actors, but it also calls into question the right to privacy. Although all of this information is in a large sense public (as we publish it directly online), at what point does tracking our information become invasive?

  4. Building on what Naomi said, I am also skeptical that Watts’ ideas on collective power can realistically apply to large entities such as government and third-party actors. The “whole” that we’re talking about is simply not large enough in relation to the size of these entities in order to apply these theories to their behavior.

    Can the public meaningfully influence the actions of governments through viral use of social media, as Hinderstein speculates in the case of societal verification? We’ve certainly seen this in the past, but only in particular types of cases: social media can convince people to rally around a political cause and to demonstrate a wave of public opinion, at least in countries where public opinion has or can have a say.

    Overall, though, the disorganized nature of a network (as Gladwell points out) can lead to gross factual errors and misinformation within the hive; the “weak ties” factor of social media can often cause a movement to die out quickly; and issues as major and secretive as nuclear proliferation and deterrence have a large chance of being kept out of the public’s view in order to prevent a landslide of media. Societal verification can be a powerful collective weapon in some settings, but it’s often an inaccurate and unreliable weapon whose effectiveness cannot be planned for.

  5. This reading actually reminded me of a psychological work I studied for another class at Princeton. In the study, one person was placed in a room with multiple confederates. The room was presented with 3 lines, one obviously shorter than the others, and they were asked with line was shortest. When the people were asked to write down their answer, and the people in the room weren’t subjected to the answers of the others, the participant got the answer right 100% of the time. However, when the people were asked to say their answers out loud, and the confederates (who were told what to say by the experiments) chose an obviously longer line, the subject was more likely to conform and say the wrong answer, even though the right answer was very clear. The subject was likely embarrassed to give an answer different from the group, either because he or she did not want to seem different, or because he or she was convinced that the group must be all giving the same answer for a reason, and was swayed by the group. Ultimately, the point is that there is definitely something to be said for the effectiveness of the group behavior in making others conform. While this is not directly related to our readings, I was reminded of it because it seemed to be related to the idea of verification. I would have liked to see the study dive into what happened if the group discussed the answer and then wrote it down anonymously (it may have and we just didn’t go over it), and that would be very much related to the treaties regarding nuclear armament. In a group setting, it’s easy to be swayed by arguments of larger powers, and the group dynamic and conformity. However, verification by multiple different nations is clearly important because other countries could be thinking something completely different. This kind of goes along with what David said above, about societal verification in totalitarian regimes. When there seems to be one unanimous, autonomous power, it’s hard to disagree.

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