The Richmond Register

Community News Network

March 19, 2014

Why your Facebook friends are so gullible

WASHINGTON — It's a common experience. You log on to Facebook for your lunchtime fix of friends' baby photos and links to fascinating online content from trusted sites like Slate, when you come across an intriguing headline such as "Stephen Hawking's Blunder on Black Holes Shows Danger of Listening to Scientists, Says Bachmann" or "Sochi Hotel Guests Complain About Topless Portraits of Putin in Rooms."

These stories aren't real. They're the work of the New Yorker's not-particularly-funny online satirist Andy Borowitz, but many people, not just your gullible Facebook friends, invariably believe them. Sometimes the official state news agencies of global superpowers believe them.

Most of us - though unfortunately not all of us - are now aware that Onion articles aren't real, but the proliferation of online parody and fake news has created an environment where many people are simply accepting fake news as fact. The bizarrely humorless Daily Currant and the often-pretty-funny military satire site Duffel Blog have been particularly adept at duping the news reading masses.

So why do people believe this stuff? A recently published paper by physicist Delia Mocanu and four colleagues at Northeastern University's Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-Technical Systems looks at the phenomenon of "Collective Attention in the Age of (Mis)information," concluding that Facebook users' willingness to believe false information is rooted in mistrust of mainstream media sources.

The researchers examined Italian Facebook activity in the run-up to the election of 2013, looking at how users interacted with "troll" posts - those that present a "caricatural version of political activism and alternative news stories, with the peculiarity to include always false information."

One example was a story reporting that the "Italian Senate voted and accepted (257 in favor and 165 abstentions) a law proposed by Senator Cirenga aimed at funding with 134 billion Euros the policy-makers to find a job in case of defeat in the political competition."

There are a number of obvious red flags in this story. There is no Sen. Cirenga, Italy doesn't have that many senators, and that amount of money would be 10 percent of the country's GDP. Nonetheless, it went viral during the election, was reposted credulously by several mainstream political organizations, and according to the authors, was "among the arguments used by protesters manifesting in several Italian cities" during the election.

The authors also divided users into groups who get their news primarily from from political organizing sites, those who mainly share content mainstream news outlets, and those who prefer "alternative" news sources: "pages which disseminate controversial information, most often lacking supporting evidence and sometimes contradictory of the official news."

They found that regular consumers of "alternative" news are far more likely to share false content. "We find that, out of the 1279 labeled users interacting with the troll memes, a dominant percentage (56 percent, as opposed to 26 percent and 18 percent for other groups) is constituted of users preeminently interacting with alternative information sources and thus more exposed to unsubstantiated claims."

I quibble a bit with the authors' use of the term "troll," which implies malicious intent on the part of the creator. The "Senator Cirenga" item included in the paper seems more like an Onion-style attempt at mocking the self-interest of politicians than a deliberate effort to misinform the public.

Clearly, people took this particularly story a bit too far, but this type of misunderstanding is less dangerous than the type of content spread by sites like superviral sites Natural News, which as Slate's Brian Palmer recently explained, "has an uncanny ability to move unsophisticated readers from harmless dietary balderdash to medical quackery to anti-government zealotry."

Also, Italy - a country where the former prime minister owned three of the country's most popular TV networks and a major new political party is led by a Colbert-style comedian - might not be the most typical environment in which to study this phenomenon. The line between news, entertainment and propaganda in Italian politics is a bit blurrier than in other countries.

And none of this is to imply that information in even the most established news sources should be trusted uncritically, but there is something to the idea that those most inclined to be critical of the mainstream media are often the least critical consumers of information from alternative sources.

Andy Borowitz isn't really helping either.

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 21, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 21, 2014

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • A quarter of the world's most educated people live in the 100 largest cities

    College graduates are increasingly sorting themselves into high-cost, high-amenity cities such as Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a phenomenon that threatens to segregate us across the country by education.

    July 18, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 17, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

AP Video
Raw: Israel Bombs Multiple Targets in Gaza Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks From Space Station Widow: Jury Sent Big Tobacco a $23B Message New Orleans Plans to Recycle Cigarette Butts UN Security Council Calls for MH 17 Crash Probe Obama Bestows Medal of Honor on NH Veteran Texas Sending National Guard Troops to Border Hopkins to Pay $190M After Pelvic Exams Taped Foxx Cites Washington 'Circus Mirror' NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong Obama Voices Concern About Casualties in Mideast Diplomacy Intensifies Amid Mounting Gaza Toll AP Exclusive: American Beaten in Israel Speaks Obama Protects Gay, Transgender Workers Raw: Gaza Rescuers Search Rubble for Survivors Raw: International Team Inspects MH17 Bodies Raw: 25 Family Members Killed in Gaza Airstrike US Teen Beaten in Mideast Talks About Ordeal 'Weird Al' Is Wowed by Album's Success
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Poll

What county fair attraction do you like most?

Amusement rides
Beauty pageants
Flora Hall craft exhibits
Horse shows
Livestock, poultry shows
Truck, tractor pulls
Mud, dirt races
Gospel sing
I like them all
     View Results