Dr Michael Quayle receives European Research Council Starting Grant



Posted: 28 August, 2018

Michael Quayle-photo

Six Irish-based researchers have been awarded prestigious Starting Grants by the European Research Council. The Irish Research Council serves as the national contact point for humanities and social sciences. Today we feature the second of the three successful projects in these fields.

Dr Michael Quayle has been awarded a 5-year European Research Council (ERC) grant of almost €1.5 million to conduct pioneering research in the fields of social psychology and sociology. Dr Quayle, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Limerick and an honorary senior lecturer in the School of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natale (South Africa), applied to the ERC panel in social sciences and humanities (SSH), for which the Irish Research Council serves as the National Contact Point. Beside Dr Quayle, only five other Irish researchers have been awarded an ERC grant in 2018 against a total of over 3,000 applications submitted.

Dr Quayle’s research project, DAFINET, is entitled: Dynamic Attitude Fixing: A novel theory of opinion dynamics in social networks and its implications for computational propaganda in hybrid social networks (containing humans and bots). The project is dedicated to the exploration of attitudes and attitude changes in relation to social dynamics and group identities. Attitude psychology is crucial to gain a better grasp of societal responses to global challenges and pressing issues such as climate change, referenda, and democratic decisions. People may hold a repertoire of ambivalent, sometimes conflicting, attitudes towards social issues, which range from vaccines to political elections. This posits significant issues when it comes to decision-making processes. As Dr Quayle explains, even if, for example, HIV vaccines are scientifically feasible, they will be useless in practice if societies cannot agree they are safe and helpful.

DAFINET investigation of attitude changes will be extremely relevant across multiple disciplines, including economics, social psychology and political science, but also medicine, computer science, and environmental science. In this context, online social networks have an ambiguous role, as they may propagate ’fake news’ through the aid of automated (bot) agents. The strategies employed by bots can influence institutions like financial markets and generate false perceptions of collective attitudes. However, despite its increasing prevalence, the phenomenon of bot influence has not been properly investigated so far.

Dr Quayle will conduct research investigating the phenomenon of attitude fixing. Dr Quayle’s research approaches attitude fixing as part of activity within multilayer networks. Activity around attitude is thus seen as a result of the relationship between agents in a multilayer network and not as a result of changes in attitude. His novel approach will simulate agent-based activity and will include network experiments. The experimental model proposed by Dr Quayle and his collaborators will be used to refine the theory of opinion dynamics and social influence in networks, providing new insights into the process of fake news as well as into network influence. The research will also be strategic in terms of diagnosing network vulnerability and resistance to computational propaganda, while informing policies and tools that mitigate the effects of bot influence.

Dr Quayle will be performing on the stage of MindField at Electric Picnic, the music and arts festival which runs from 31 August to 2 September in Stradbally Hall, Co Laois.

The Irish Research Council holds the role of joint national contact point for the European Research Council to raise awareness, inform and advise on funding opportunities in addition to supporting in the preparation, submission and follow-up of grant applications. The Irish Research Council also leads as national delegate and national contact point to support applications under Societal Challenge 6 Innovative, Inclusive and Reflective Societies, and prepares the Irish research community for interdisciplinary engagement with the European societal challenges by fostering creative connections across all disciplines.