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March 06, 2021

Attempts to find central “influencers,” “opinion leaders,” “hubs,” “optimal seeds,” or other important people who can hasten or slow diffusion or social contagion has long been a major research question in network science. We demonstrate that opinion leadership occurs only under conventional but implausible scope conditions. We demonstrate that a highly central node is a more effective seed for diffusion than a random node if nodes can only learn via the network. However, actors are also subject to external influences such as mass media and advertising. We find that diffusion is noticeably faster when it begins with a high centrality node, but that this advantage only occurs in the region of parameter space where external influence is constrained to zero and collapses catastrophically even at minimal levels of external influence. Importantly, nearly all prior agent-based research on choosing a seed or seeds implicitly occurs in the network influence only region of parameter space. We demonstrate this effect using preferential attachment, small world, and several empirical networks. These networks vary in how large the baseline opinion leadership effect is, but in all of them it collapses with the introduction of external influence. This implies that, in marketing and public health, advertising broadly may be underrated as a strategy for promoting network-based diffusion.

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