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How networks hide truth and how big data helps recover it

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People reveal their truest selves when they are alone, away from the impact of others. Even with just one person around, a person might feel biased towards a certain opinion or decision based on the other person’s ideas, disregarding the information that they know themselves. This “hidden self” is discussed in NPR’s podcast Hidden Brain, on an episode called “Who We Are At 2 a.m.” In public, going against popular opinion is often shunned and criticized, so many people choose to follow the crowd to avoid the unwanted consequences of being in the minority. Therefore, when people are alone, they have nothing to hide, and so the questions they ask on the internet reveal their genuine thoughts and desires.

This podcast episode investigates the uses of big data in determining the truth about large populations of people, specifically the data generated by Google’s search engine. Analyzing the data left behind by people’s searches, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, has found many correlations that direct, in-person surveys don’t reveal, such as the percentage of American men who are gay, the parts of the United States that are more racist (which he claims has shifted from the original divide between north and south to a divide between east and west), and many other important correlations that are difficult to uncover.

The potential and value this data has is undeniable, because it allows a population to learn more about themselves as well as predict large movements in the decision making of a population. This data is already being used by companies to predict people’s decisions. Of course, we must be careful about the conclusions we come to using this data as it often can reveal correlations that a population would not be very excited to hear.

The usage of big data is critical in revealing the truth, or something close to the truth, that people know, which is often masked by the influence of networks. As we’ve seen in class with the urn experiment, information cascades can begin extremely quickly, forcing people to hide the information that they know and to copy the decisions of others. In order to reveal the truth, we must somehow get in touch with people when they are alone, which occurs through technology like Google’s search engine. We should use this information to pinpoint and focus on solving the important issues our society faces.


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