Complex-systems theory could explain why some democracies become unstable

07 Dec 2018

What a week it has been on both sides of the English Channel. The rancour over Brexit  has hit fever pitch here in the UK and groups of very angry people in yellow vests have taken over streets throughout France. An observer would be forgiven for thinking that both of these stable western democracies are heading for crises.


The various Brexit scenarios and the motivations of the gilets jaunes are both very complex and therefore it can be very difficult to understand how these crises arrived and where they are going.


In “Complex systems help explain how democracy is destabilised”, my colleague at IOP Publishing, Simon Davies looks for answers in research led by Karoline Wiesner at the University of Bristol. Wiesner is a mathematician and she worked with an international and multidisciplinary team to use complex systems theory to analyse the stability of social institutions such as democracy.


Targeted messages


Wienser tells Davies that very little work has been done on understanding the circumstances that can cause a democracy to become unstable. In conversation with Wienser and several of her collaborators, Davies looks at the roles of radicalization, polarization and social media. In particular, the researchers explore the consequences of targeted messaging in social media when the recipients do not know the true identity or motivation of the sender.

Physicists get to grips with complex systems


“These impacts of social media on public discourse show how democracies can be vulnerable in ways against which institutional structures and historical traditions offer little protection,” says Wienser. “Complex systems science offers a unique entry point to study such phenomena.”


A paper written by Wiesner and colleagues is published in the European Journal of Physics.