Social media may help you log on to herd mentality

A Loyolean, this economics prof uses cloud computing to explain human behaviour

TALKING IDEOLOGY: Shyam Gouri Suresh at XLRI, Jamshedpur, on Wednesday. Picture by Bhola Prasad

Jamshedpur: An economics professor in the US with steel city roots, Shyam Gouri Suresh, 38, delivered a lecture in XLRI on Wednesday on how social pressures, including social media, compel individuals to toe one ideological line, making society increasingly polarised, though people may not agree with every facet of the ideology in their private lives.

Suresh, an alumnus of Loyola School in Jamshedpur who left India after plus two to study at Trinity College, Connecticut, and University of Texas, Austin, and is now an associate professor of economics at Davidson College in North Carolina, has an interesting method to illustrate this.

His research is done through agent-based computational economics, where simply put, he programmes an infinite number of computers to behave like human beings. An agent-based model means a class of computational models that simulate the actions and interactions of autonomous agents, say people and groups, and how it impacts the system as a whole.

In his research in the US, he used cloud computing to demonstrate how people's opinions gradually acquire a more partisan character, say a Democrat versus a Republican.

Till 1970s, Suresh said, polarisation wasn't much of a concern. "But now, with the availability of social media, too many television channels, and the Internet with a huge, huge pool of information, people get polarised along one view because they mingle with like-minded people and gradually tend to see the same opinions on their circle of social media and watch the same channels," he said. So, he explained, it was easy to get homogenised.

Asked why he was doing this form of research, he said one of his students' observation was a trigger.

"One of my students said that while many of his friends had personal opinions on LGBT marriages or abortion or politics, those strangely changed when the people were given a chance to speak on a forum. Also, there are several economic issues that can't be analysed using conventional mathematical methods. That's why I used this technique for my research," Suresh said. He added that he wanted to research the polarisation of politics in India too.

"The study in Indian will be more difficult because the political system is very different here. USA has a bi-party framework, but here it is a multi-party system with many regional parties dominant in some states. It's complicated but interesting. The motive is to implement agent-based modelling more often in research where talking to people individually can be cumbersome," said Suresh.

His Jamshedpur-based parents now relocated to Kerala, Suresh is currently a guest of the XLRI. Loving his Jamshedpur visit, he often drops in on his alma mater to teach the Loyoleans anything, "from auctions to games".


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