The Spreading of Misinformation Online

Jan 17 2017

The massive diffusion of socio-technical systems and micro-blogging platforms on the internet creates a direct path from producers to consumers of content, i.e., allows disintermediation, and changes the way users become informed, debate, and form their opinions. This dis-intermediated environment can foster confusion about causation, and thus encourage speculation, rumors, and mistrust.

  • In 2011 a blogger claimed that global warming was a fraud designed to diminish liberty and weaken democracy.
  • Misinformation about the Ebola epidemic has caused confusion among healthcare workers.
  • Jade Helm 15, a simple military exercise, was perceived on the Internet as the beginning of a new civil war in the United States.

Recent works have shown that increasing the exposure of users to unsubstantiated rumors increases their tendency to be credulous.

Beliefs formation and revision is influenced by the way communities attempt to make sense of events or facts. Such a phenomenon is particularly evident on the internet where users, embedded in homogeneous clusters, process information through a shared system of meaning and trigger collective framing of narratives that are often biased toward self-confirmation.

In this work, through a thorough quantitative analysis on a massive dataset, the authors study the determinants behind misinformation diffusion. In particular, they analyze the cascade dynamics of Facebook users when the content is related to very distinct narratives: conspiracy theories and scientific information. On the one hand, conspiracy theories simplify causation, reduce the complexity of reality, and are formulated in a way that is able to tolerate a certain level of uncertainty. On the other hand, scientific information disseminates scientific advances and exhibits the process of scientific thinking. Notice that they do not focus on the quality of the information but rather on the possibility of verification. Indeed, the main difference between the two is content verifiability. The generators of scientific information and their data, methods, and outcomes are readily identifiable and available.

The origins of conspiracy theories are often unknown and their content is strongly disengaged from mainstream society and sharply divergent from recommended practices, e.g., the belief that vaccines cause autism.

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