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How the media help spread misinformation online

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How the media help spread misinformation online

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As social networks have grown in popularity, the way information spreads throughout a network has become a hot topic for exploration.  Most of this has focused on how content can be made to go viral (it can’t), but there has been a growing number of studies looking at how misinformation spreads through a network.

For instance, a study from last summer that looked at the issue in relation to health scares.  The researchers raise the example of the swine flu outbreak in 2009 and the way panic quickly spread online, causing peculiar behaviors across Asia driven by the misinformation posted online.

They suggest that the degree of connectivity within a network is a strong indicator of how rapidly misinformation may spread.

A second studyfrom earlier last summer showed the influence of certain ‘nodes’ in the spread of information.  It explored political discourse online, and found that certain influential voices would be incredibly influential in the general online discussion, with many people simply regurgitating what those influncers said on a topic.

You might imagine that news organizations fit the bill as such an influencer, and that was the finding of a recent study that cast blame on the media for failing to do their part in ensuring the accuracy of the information they share.

“Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement,” the authors say.

The report, published by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, suggests that poor practice by various online publishers is accelerating the spread of fake news.

“Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well,” the study concluded.

The clamor for readers is at the heart of the practice, as fake stories are usually sexier than their more accurate peers.  This has been particularly obvious in reporting of the Ebola outbreak.

The authors say that whilst much of this fake information is spread by less reputable sources, the quality outlets nevertheless sit by and let the rumors spread, doing little to quell them.

“When (fake) information is out there and websites are covering it, there is an imperative on the part of news organizations to look at it, flag it for readers and tell them what we know and what we don’t know,” the authors say.

This is perpetuated by the usual failure to follow up on a story that is later debunked.  Analysis revealed that around 20 percent of news outlets followed up on a story with more accurate information after the initial output had been debunked.

It suggests a rather worrying trend, especially given the crucial role media outlets play as nodes in the network.  With the pace of news so rapid, there is a tendency to assume anything online is true.

With the web a social place, there can be a tendency to believe something to be true if it’s repeated often enough.  It’s like Goebbel’s famous quote about repeating a lie often enough and it soon becomes the truth.

Previous studies have found that the more something is repeated, the more believable it becomes.  The web has only accelerated that process.

Of course, there have also been attempts to use the web to improve matters.  Last year for instance, saw the launch of a site called Grasswire, which is a site that allows users to verify the validity of things they are reading online.  The site, which focuses specifically on breaking news, allows users to vote on topics in a style similar to that found on sites such as Reddit.

The research highlights how challenging it is for these efforts to overcome the misinformation online.

“Over time the truth emerges, but the corrections don’t tend to be as viral or get as widely distributed. And they don’t always reach the same people,” they say.

“I am a believer in the value of the crowd, but the truth is often far less interesting and shareable than the lie.”

As Abraham Lincoln famously said, 85 percent of the things online are probably made up.  It seems that if the media aren’t going to fact check for us, then we’re duty bound to do so ourselves to ensure the validity of what we’re reading.

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