How Misinformation Spreads on Facebook

RIAN archive 988824 Facebook social network's pageSarah Gray reports for Salon (via AlterNet) on research about how people on Facebook interacted with “trolls” posting false information; she says the results are depressing:

From the steady roll of theories on what happened to Malaysian Arlines Flight 370, to Sarah Palin’s “death panels” panic, to Donald Trump’s birther theories, misinformation spreads like wildfire in the age of Facebook.

In 2013, professor Walter Quattrociocchi of Northeastern University along with his team studied how more than 1 million Facebook users engaged with political information during the Italian election. During that election a post appeared titled: “Italian Senate voted and accepted (257 in favor and 165 abstentions) a law proposed by Senator Cirenga to provide policy makers with €134 billion Euros to find jobs in the event of electoral defeat.”

The post was from an Italian site that parodies the news. According to  MIT Technology Review it was filled with at least four major inaccuracies: “[T]he senator involved is fictitious, the total number of votes is higher than is possible in Italian politics, the amount of money involved is more than 10% of Italian GDP and the law itself is an invention.”

Despite the blatant falsehoods of this  parody news post, the story went viral — shared over 35,000 times in less than a month. This, of course, wasn’t the worst of it. The post was then picked up by a political commentary page, which gave the falsehoods perceived credibility. MIT Technology Review explains the scary outcome, “Today, this ‘law’ is commonly cited as evidence of corruption in Italian politics by protesters in cities all over Italy.” This is the equivalent of an article from the Onion being treated as credible news ( which happens surprisingly regularly).

In order to study how instances of conspiracy theories, like the one above, happen, the team led by Quattrociocchi looked at both mainstream media posts, and those from alternative news media. They looked at how people engaged with these posts including “likes” and comments. They found that people engaged for the same amount of time on both mainstream and alternative news posts. However, people were more likely to engage with posts that were known to be false — either parodies, or posted by trolls…

[continues at Salon (via AlterNet)]


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6 Comments on "How Misinformation Spreads on Facebook"

  1. doodahman | Mar 19, 2014 at 12:49 pm |

    here’s the problem: who is the gatekeeper of what is wrong or right? That’s the point of a marketplace of ideas– there is no gatekeeper, the ideas and assertions stand or fall on their own. Global climate changes is a good example. The warming hysteria crowd’s entire focus now is on silencing any contrary ideas or assertions in public forums, on the false claim that the science is settled. As to causality (CO2 versus natural climate variability), as to the current state of warming, and to the future conditions versus the climate modeling- the issues are far from settled. Yet, that’s an example of where people with valid objections to the consensus are being dismissed as trolls, subject to pathetic “shaming” techniques, and literally removed from public forums. It’s ridiculous.
    You want to be a lazy ass and rely on some fool with an agenda to tell you what’s “trolling” and what’s just a minority position? Then you will be no different than the alleged trolls you seek to destroy.

  2. I tend to perceive the internet as pre social media (myspace, facebook, twitter, etc.) and post social media. Pre social media was a near utopian playground for nerds, with poopie lists, Monty Python references, and such. Post social media is all those things with the addition of the people who would not have touched the internet with a ten foot pole.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that myspace, facebook, twitter, etc. are awful, it’s the abundance of mouthbreathers that are given a voice by using those sites. As well as the institutions (politicians, Alex Jones, Sarah Palin, etc.) that see a rube a mile away and take no qualms with leading them astray.

  3. Thurlow Weed | Mar 19, 2014 at 9:29 pm |

    Rule #1 of internet narcissism: Find the biggest small pond you can, and be a big fish in it. Most of the attention whores on fb would crash and burn within weeks if they had to post on traditional forums. Couldn’t handle the pressure of free-style forum replies, couldn’t block you from their wall, therefore, everybody’s a troll!

    Yeah, you kids got it easy.

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