Category Archives: Fil

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Quirkies Evolution

Iris: QuirkiesLately, my hobby has been to develop Quirkies Evolution, an iOS game to teach kids about evolution. This started last year as the 4th-grade science project of my daughter, Iris. She asked for advice about a project idea; she wanted it to be about coding and evolution, two subjects about which she has been learning recently. So we ended up designing Quirkies together, and she used the app to run some simulations and present results at her school’s science fair about how adaptive traits become more common in a population. Iris is actively involved in all aspects of the game, including some of the Swift programming (especially the geometry and core graphics), although I have done most of the coding as it is quite challenging to develop for iOS. It has been fun for me to learn iOS development, play with evolutionary algorithms (the subject of my undergraduate and PhD research), and get inspiration for some work projects.

quirkies preview
Quirkies preview: click for animated GIF

Quirkies are creatures that evolve through natural selection, reproduction, recombination and mutation of genes. By selecting mates who get to reproduce, players simulate the environment in which the best quirkies survive. You can choose a trait that you would like the population to have. As you play the game, try to select quirkies with that trait. In each generation, the offspring inherit the genes from the parents. The trait that you picked will become common throughout the population. Your fitness score at the top of the main screen will improve, and you win the game with high enough fitness over generations. But quirkies might also be rejected by mates, experience harmful mutations, and risk death. Your quirkies will evolve new traits such as colors, nose, mouth, limbs, hair, and more by regulatory gene adaptations. You can explore it all through the family tree (showing how genes are inherited) and population view.

Quirkies populationAs you play, quirkies will entertain you with funny comments (even with speech), quiz your understanding of evolution, and make suggestions from hundreds of educational videos and podcasts. You earn badges through these activities. You can also earn survival points with mini-games: help your offspring feed, fight challengers, and find their parents. And don’t tell anyone, but if you get to the biolab, you can manipulate your quirkie’s genes.

Kids can name and save their favorite quirkies (they also get scientific species names), and share them with their friends. (Parents, no worries — your kid cannot post on social media without your permission.) Then they can get news updates when one of their quirkies has new siblings or offspring, and explore the families of their saved quirkies: their parents, siblings, mates, and offspring.

Quirkies Evolution iconQuirkies Evolution is released through Indiana University and benefits from the scientific advice of Matt Hahn, one of my favorite evolutionary biologists. Iris and I are also grateful to many other friends who helped with their ideas and feedback, including Anushka, Jessica, Kira, Luca, Markus, Max, and many others.

Quirkies Evolution DownloadHow can you help? Glad you asked! Most importantly, download and install the game on your iPhone or iPad, and rate it (or even better review it) on the App Store. This way you can help others find it among millions of other apps. And of course, if you have kids, let them play with it. Ideal ages are 8-12 but even younger kids and adults can have fun. Iris and I hope you enjoy both the fun and the learning!

Awards at CCS 2015

Optimized-IU_poster_5_botsThe CNetS poster “The Rise of Social Bots in Online Social Networks” by Emilio Ferrara, Onur Varol, Prashant Shiralkar, Clayton Davis, Filippo Menczer, and Alessandro Flammini won a Best Poster Award at CCS 2015. The poster was presented by Clayton Davis. The results will also appear in the paper “The Rise of Social Bots” to be published in Comm. ACM (in press, preprint).

The paper “Modularity and the Spread of Perturbations in Complex Dynamical Systems” by Artemy Kolchinsky, Alexander J. Gates and Luis M. Rocha, and the poster “Information Theoretic Structures of the French Revolution” by Alexander Barron, Simon DeDeo and Rebecca Spang won additional awards.

Finally, our former postdoctoral scientist Bruno Gonçalves (now tenured faculty member at Aix-Marseille Université) received a Junior Scientist Award from the Complex Systems Society for his contributions to the study of human social behavior from large-scale online attention and behavioral data. This is the second Junior Scientist Award for CNetS (the first was won by Filippo Radicchi).

Congratulations to the CNetS team!


Indiana University Network Science Institute

IUNI announcement in Science magazine

The new Indiana University Network Science Institute (IUNI) unites 100+ researchers at IU — building on their world-renowned multidisciplinary expertise toward further scientific understanding of the complex networked systems of our world. Through pioneering new approaches in mapping, representing, visualizing, modeling, and analyzing diverse complex networks across levels and disciplines, IUNI will lead the way. We keep track of the big picture — ever-changing and interconnected. We’re laying the groundwork for innovative research and discovery in the area of network science.

The Truth about Truthy

The Truthy project was misrepresented in ‘The Kelly File’ and several other Fox News broadcasts. Public domain photo by MattGagnon via Wikimedia Commons.

For the past four years, researchers at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing have been studying the ways in which information spreads on social media networks such as Twitter. This basic research project is federally funded, like a large percentage of university research across the country.

The project, informally dubbed “Truthy,” makes use of complex computer models to analyze the sharing of information on social media to determine how popular sentiment, user influence, attention, social network structure, and other factors affect the manner in which information is disseminated. Additionally, an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused.

Since 25 Aug 2014, when a first misleading article was posted on a conservative blog, the Truthy project has come under criticism from some, including The Kelly File and Fox and Friends broadcasts by Fox News on 26 and 28 Aug 2014, who have misrepresented its goals. Contrary to these claims, the target is the study of the structural patterns of information diffusion. For example, an email sent simultaneously to a million addresses is likely spam, even if we have no automatic way to determine whether its content is true or false. The assumption behind the Truthy effort is that an understanding of the spreading patterns may facilitate the identification of abuse, independent from the nature or political color of the communication.

While the Truthy platform provides support to study the evolution of communication in all portions of the political spectrum, it is not informed by political partisanship. The machine learning algorithms used to identify suspicious patterns of information diffusion are entirely oblivious to the possibly political partisanship of the messages.

Read the facts below for a primer on Truthy. More detailed information can be found on the Truthy website and in our publications.

Timeline and updates:

8/28/2014: Despite the clarifications in this post, Fox News and others continued to perpetrate their attacks to our research project and to the PI personally. Their accusations are based on false claims, supported by bits of text and figures selectively extracted from our writings and presented completely out of context, in misleading ways. None of the researchers were contacted for comments before these outlandish conspiracy theories were aired and published. There is a good dose of irony in a research project that studies the diffusion of misinformation becoming the target of such a powerful disinformation machine. (The video of the first segment on “The Kelly File” with misinformation about our project was later removed from the Fox News website.)

9/3/2014: David Uberti wrote an accurate account of recent events in Columbia Journalism Review.

10/18/2014: Unfortunately, the smear campaign against our research project continues, with unsupported allegations echoed in an misleading op-ed by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who did not contact any of the researchers with questions about the accuracy of his allegations.

10/22/2014: Amid news reports that the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee initiated an investigation into the NSF grant supporting our project, read our interview in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage setting the record straight about our research.

CRA, ACM, AAAI, USENIX, and SIAM write to congress about Truthy project

10/23/2014: While the House Majority Leader joins the fray, IU releases a statement in support of our work.

10/24/2014: Fox News and FCC Commissioner Pai continue to spread disinformation about our research. (The video of the interview about our project, to which we were not invited, was later removed from the Fox News website.)

10/27/2014: Some accurate coverage of the controversy appeared in Physics Today, Motherboard, Motherboard, and Indianapolis Star over the past few days.

11/3/2014: Jeffrey Mervis covers the controversy about this project in Science. We also provided additional information about our research in a slide deck embedded at the bottom of this post. 

11/4/2014: Five leading computing societies and associations (CRA, ACM, AAAI, USENIX, and SIAM) wrote a joint letter to the chairman and the committee ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology expressing their concern over mischaracterizations of our research.

11/7/2014: Over the past few days we have seen more coverage in Computer World, The Hill, Information Week, and Science about the reactions of the computing and science communities to the Truthy controversy.

11/11/2014: The House Science Committee Chairman sent a letter to the director of the  NSF on November 10, stating that our grant “was intended to create standards for online political discussion” and that a web service developed under the grant “targeted conservative social media messages.” These allegations are false, as we have explained in this post, in the slides embedded below, and in our publications — including the one quoted in the Chairman’s letter. On the same day, the Association of American Universities released a statement on the grant inquires by the House Science Committee.

11/21/2014: False rumors about our research continue to be spread. Some of the questions we have received suggested that our two separate project and demo websites were generating confusion, so we merged them into a redesigned research website with information and highlights about the research project, publications, demos, data, etc.

11/25/2014: Rep. Johnson and Rep. Lofgren, respectively ranking member and member of the House Committee on Science, write a letter to the committee chairman, Rep. Smith, in response to his accusations.

Facts about Truthy:

  1. Truthy is an informal nickname associated with a research project of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at the IU School of Informatics and Computing. The project aims to study how information spreads on social media, such as Twitter.
  2. The project has focused on domains such as news, politics, social movements, scientific results, and trending social media topics. Researchers develop theoretical computer models and validate them by analyzing public data, mainly from the Twitter streaming API.
  3. Social media posts available through public APIs are processed without human intervention or judgment to visualize and study the spread of millions of memes. We aim to build a platform to make these analytic tools easily accessible to social scientists, reporters, and the general public.
  4. An important goal of the project is to help mitigate misuse and abuse of social media by helping us better understand how social media can be potentially abused. For example: when social bots are used to create the appearance of human-generated communication (hence the name “truthy”).  We study whether it is possible to automatically differentiate between organic content and so-called “astroturf.”
  5. Examples of research to date include analyses of geographic and temporal patterns in movements like Occupy Wall Street, societal unrest in Turkey, the polarization of online political discourse, the use of social media data to predict election outcomes and stock market movements, and the geographic diffusion of trending topics.
  6. On the more theoretical side, we have studied how individuals’  limited attention span affects what information we propagate and what social connections we make, and how the structure of social networks can help predict which memes are likely to become viral.
  7. Hundreds of researchers across the U.S. and the world are studying similar issues based on the same data and with analogous goals — these topics were studied well before the advent of social media. In the US these research efforts are supported not only by the NSF but also by other federal funding agencies such as DoD, DARPA, and IARPA.
  8. The results of our research have been covered widely in the press, published in top peer-reviewed journals, and presented at top conferences worldwide. All papers are publicly available.

Finally, the Truthy research project is not and never was:

  • a political watchdog
  • a database to be used by the federal government to monitor the activities of those who oppose its policies
  • a government probe of social media
  • an attempt to suppress free speech or limit political speech or develop standards for online political speech
  • a way to define “misinformation”
  • a partisan political effort
  • a system targeting political messages and commentary connected to conservative groups
  • a mechanism to terminate any social media accounts
  • a database tracking hate speech

Best paper award at WebSci14

world_turkeyCongratulations to Onur Varol, Emilio Ferrara, Chris Ogan, Fil Menczer, and Sandro Flammini for winning the ACM Web Science 2014 Best Paper Award with their paper Evolution of online user behavior during a social upheaval (preprint). In the paper, the authors study the pivotal role played by Twitter during the political mobilization of the Gezi Park movement in Turkey. By analyzing over 2.3 million tweets produced during 25 days of protest in 2013, the authors show that similarity in trends of discussion mirrors geographic cues. The analysis also reveals that the conversation becomes more democratic as events unfold, with a redistribution of influence over time in the user population. Finally, the study highlights how real-world events, such as political speeches and police actions, affect social media conversations and trigger changes in individual behavior.

Congratulations also go to Luca Aiello and Rossano Schifanella, both former visitors and members of CNetS, who won the Best Presentation Award with their talk on Reading the Source Code of Social Ties (preprint).


websci14We are excited to announce that the ACM Web Science 2014 Conference will be hosted by our center on the beautiful IUB campus  June 23–26, 2014. Web Science studies the vast information network of people, communities, organizations, applications, and policies that shape and are shaped by the Web, the largest artifact constructed by humans in history. Computing, physical, and social sciences come together, complementing each other in understanding how the Web affects our interactions and behaviors. Previous editions of the conference were held in Athens, Raleigh, Koblenz, Evanston, and Paris. The conference is organized on behalf of the Web Science Trust by general co-chairs Fil Menczer, Jim Hendler, and Bill Dutton. Follow us on Twitter and see you in Bloomington!