“Fake news” has emerged as a substantial problem for democracy. The circulation of false narratives, lies, and conspiracy theories on self-described “alternative news” sites undercuts the knowledge voters rely on to make political decisions. Sometimes the spread of this misinformation is deliberate, spread by hate groups, foreign governments, or individuals bent on harming the US.

A new study offers information as to the content, connectedness, and use of these websites. Information scholar Kate Starbird performed a network analysis of twitter users responding to mass shootings. These users denied the mainstream narrative about the shooting (arguing, for example, that the real story was being hidden from the public or that the shooting never happened at all). Since most of the fake news sites cross-promote conspiracy theories across the board, focusing on this one type of story was sufficient for mapping the networks. Here is some of what she found:

  • The sites do not share a political point of view. They are dominated by the far right, but they also include the far left, hate groups, nationalists, and Russian propaganda sites. They did strongly overlap in being anti-globalist, anti-science, and anti-mainstream media.

  • Fake news sites are highly repetitive, spreading the same conspiracies and lies, often re-posting identical content on multiple sites.
  • Users, then, aren’t necessarily being careless or undisciplined in their information gathering. They often tweet overlapping content from several different fake news sites, suggesting that they are obeying a hallmark of media literacy: seeking out multiple sources. You can see the dense network created by this use of multiple data sources in the upper left.

  • One of the main conspiracy stories promulgated by fake news sites is that the real news is fake.
  • Believing this, Twitter users who share links to fake news sites often also share links to traditional news outlets (see the connections in the network to the Washington Post, for example), but they do so primarily as evidence that their false belief was true. When the New York Times reports the mainstream story about the mass shooting, for instance, it is argued to be proof of a cover up. This is consistent with the backfire effect: exposure to facts tends to strengthen belief in misinformation rather than undermine it.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Starbird expresses distress at her findings. “I used to be a techno-utopian,” she explained, but she is now deeply worried about the “menace of unreality.” Emerging research suggests that believing in one conspiracy theory is a risk factor for believing in another. Individuals drawn to these sites out of a concern with the safety of vaccines, for example, may come out with a belief in a Clinton-backed pedophilia ring, a global order controlled by Jews, and an aversion to the only cure for misinformation: truth. “There really is an information war for your mind,” Starbird concluded. “And we’re losing it.”

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
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