Mathematical Model “Describes” Online Conflicts over Wikipedia Articles

Budapest, February 19, 2013 – Researchers have produced a mathematical model to describe how conflicting opinions are resolved over articles that appear on Wikipedia, the collaboratively edited encyclopedia. The study maps the evolution of opinion over time so that even widely diverging opinions may eventually converge. The researchers say this pattern emerges from the interaction of the editors resulting in collective human behavior reminiscent to interaction of particles in physics.

The model, which appears in the journal “Physical Review Letters,” was constructed by a research team, led by Janos Kertesz, professor at CEU's Center for Network Science. The team also includes another researcher from Hungary and others from the UK, Finland, and Spain.

“New media produce an efficient collaborative environment but with collaboration comes conflict,” Kertesz said. “Wikipedia is an important example because every single change is documented and publicly available. It's a gold mine for research.”

At the outset, the researchers mapped widely differing opinions amongst the editors of articles that appeared on Wikipedia like the Dresden bombing, Japan and anarchism. Editors were seen to influence each other either by direct communication or indirectly by modifying the Wikipedia article.

“We succeeded in reproducing the categories of conflicts,” Kertesz said. “There are single conflicts with just one break that resolves in a consensus and there are conflicts that have multiple arguments and multiple resolutions. And then there are the permanent wars.”

The researchers found that when a fixed number of individuals form one “mainstream” and two opposing “extremist” groups, consensus in the medium's content is achieved but only after a long time and this may not correspond to the initial mainstream view. In the case of a dynamic environment where new editors replace existing ones, they found periods of conflict and consensus can alternate indefinitely, depending on the rate of newcomers and the degree of controversy in the article's topic but the average number of conflicts over a topic is seven.

“We believe this model exhibits some interesting behavior that for the first time can qualitatively capture key characteristics of online conflicts,” said Taha Yasseri from the University of Oxford. “The competition and co-existence of local and global interactions play an important role in physics as well. For example, we have already observed this in the creation of sand dunes, which are not solely formed by the local interaction of sand grains with neighboring grains but also the wind, which brings into play global and long range effects. To understand the emergence of editors’ opinions, again we see both the direct interactions of editors with each other and the global interactions of editors altering a shared medium.”

The group’s model describes the spontaneous dynamics of the clashes of opinions in Wikipedia in three types of scenarios: First, it shows how increasing the number of new editors to an article gives rise to controversy. Secondly, the model also accounts for different levels of tolerance in editors’ sensitivity towards certain topics. Lastly, it captures states of uninterrupted controversy where sensitive contributors cannot stand even small deviations from their opinions. However, it shows that eventually even strongly opposing views converge over time, even without direct interaction between dissenting contributors. The researchers conclude that the shared medium takes care of this. Without an article on which to work collectively, groups with different opinions could stay separate and ignore each other, explains Gerardo Iniguez, doctoral student in the group and in Aalto University Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science.

“Our model is a tolerance model,” Kertesz explained. “If the article is very different from an editor's opinion, they are more likely to change the article. If it's close to their opinion, the editor is less likely to change it. It's usually a few people who are rigid and keep the edit war going.”

Kertesz sees this research having broad applications for managing conflicts, which could be applied in political situations as well as in businesses or other large organizations.

“Opinions, Conflicts and Consensus: Modelling Social Dynamics in a Collaborative Environment” was written by Janos Torok from the University of Technology and Economics in Hungary; Gerardo Iniguez and Kimmo Kaski from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science, Finland; Taha Yasseri from the University of Oxford; Maxi San Miguel from the IFISC, Spain; and Janos Kertesz from the Center for Network Science, Central European University, Hungary. The research project, ICTeCollective, is funded under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme.

For more information on CEU's Center for Network Science visit http://cns.ceu.hu/.

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