Impossible by Conventional Means: Ten Years on from the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge

Published in arXiv preprint, 2020

Recommended citation: A. Rutherford, M. Cebrian, I. Hong and I. Rahwan, "Impossible by Conventional Means: Ten Years on from the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge", arXiv preprint arXiv:2008.05940, (2020). https://arxiv.org/abs/2008.05940

Ten years ago, DARPA launched the 'Network Challenge', more commonly known as the 'DARPA Red Balloon Challenge'. Ten red weather balloons were fixed at unknown locations in the US. An open challenge was launched to locate all ten, the first to do so would be declared the winner receiving a cash prize. A team from MIT Media Lab was able to locate them all within 9 hours using social media and a novel reward scheme that rewarded viral recruitment. This achievement was rightly seen as proof of the remarkable ability of social media, then relatively nascent, to solve real world problems such as large-scale spatial search. Upon reflection, however, the challenge was also remarkable as it succeeded despite many efforts to provide false information on the location of the balloons. At the time the false reports were filtered based on manual inspection of visual proof and comparing the IP addresses of those reporting with the purported coordinates of the balloons. In the ten years since, misinformation on social media has grown in prevalence and sophistication to be one of the defining social issues of our time. Seen differently we can cast the misinformation observed in the Red Balloon Challenge, and unexpected adverse effects in other social mobilisation challenges subsequently, not as bugs but as essential features. We further investigate the role of the increasing levels of political polarisation in modulating social mobilisation. We confirm that polarisation not only impedes the overall success of mobilisation, but also leads to a low reachability to oppositely polarised states, significantly hampering recruitment. We find that diversifying geographic pathways of social influence are key to circumvent barriers of political mobilisation and can boost the success of new open challenges.