All Publications

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Unraveling the Origin of Social Bursts in Collective Attention

Manlio De Domenico, Eduardo G. Altmann arXiv:1903.06588 (2019)


In the era of social media, every day billions of individuals produce content in socio-technical systems resulting in a deluge of information. However, human attention is a limited resource and it is increasingly challenging to consume the most suitable content for one’s interests. In fact, the complex interplay between individual and social activities in social systems overwhelmed by information results in bursty activity of collective attention which are still poorly understood. Here, we tackle this challenge by analyzing the online activity of millions of users in a popular microblogging platform during exceptional events, from NBA Finals to the elections of Pope Francis and the discovery of gravitational waves. We observe extreme fluctuations in collective attention that we are able to characterize and explain by considering the co-occurrence of two fundamental factors: the heterogeneity of social interactions and the preferential attention towards influential users. Our findings demonstrate how combining simple mechanisms provides a route towards complex social phenomena.

Reducing measles risk in Turkey through social integration of Syrian refugees

Paolo Bosetti, Piero Poletti, Massimo Stella, Bruno Lepri, Stefano Merler, Manlio De Domenico arXiv:1901.04214 (2019)


Turkey hosts almost 3.5M refugees and has to face a humanitarian emergency of unprecedented levels. We use mobile phone data to map the mobility patterns of both Turkish and Syrian refugees, and use these patterns to build data-driven computational models for quantifying the risk of epidemics spreading for measles — a disease having a satisfactory immunization coverage in Turkey but not in Syria, due to the recent civil war — while accounting for hypothetical policies to integrate the refugees with the Turkish population. Our results provide quantitative evidence that policies to enhance social integration between refugees and the hosting population would reduce the transmission potential of measles by almost 50%, preventing the onset of widespread large epidemics in the country. Our results suggest that social segregation does not hamper but rather boosts potential outbreaks of measles to a greater extent in Syrian refugees but also in Turkish citizens, although to a lesser extent. This is due to the fact that the high immunization coverage of Turkish citizens can shield Syrian refugees from getting exposed to the infection and this in turn reduces potential sources of infection and spillover of cases among Turkish citizens as well, in a virtuous cycle reminiscent of herd immunity.

Bots increase exposure to negative and inflammatory content in online social systems

Massimo Stella, Emilio Ferrara, and Manlio De Domenico, PNAS 115, 12435 (2018)


Societies are complex systems, which tend to polarize into subgroups of individuals with dramatically opposite perspectives. This phenomenon is reflected—and often amplified—in online social networks, where, however, humans are no longer the only players and coexist alongside with social bots—that is, software-controlled accounts. Analyzing large-scale social data collected during the Catalan referendum for independence on October 1, 2017, consisting of nearly 4 millions Twitter posts generated by almost 1 million users, we identify the two polarized groups of Independentists and Constitutionalists and quantify the structural and emotional roles played by social bots. We show that bots act from peripheral areas of the social system to target influential humans of both groups, bombarding Independentists with violent contents, increasing their exposure to negative and inflammatory narratives, and exacerbating social conflict online. Our findings stress the importance of developing countermeasures to unmask these forms of automated social manipulation.

Influence of augmented humans in online interactions during voting events

Massimo Stella, Marco Cristoforetti, Manlio De Domenico, PLoS ONE 14(5): e0214210 (2019)


The advent of the digital era provided a fertile ground for the development of virtual societies, complex systems influencing real-world dynamics. Understanding online human behavior and its relevance beyond the digital boundaries is still an open challenge. Here we show that online social interactions during a massive voting event can be used to build an accurate map of real-world political parties and electoral ranks. We provide evidence that information flow and collective attention are often driven by a special class of highly influential users, that we name “augmented humans”, who exploit thousands of automated agents, also known as bots, for enhancing their online influence. We show that augmented humans generate deep information cascades, to the same extent of news media and other broadcasters, while they uniformly infiltrate across the full range of identified groups. Digital augmentation represents the cyber-physical counterpart of the human desire to acquire power within social systems.