Online misinformation, fake news, false news, hoaxes, you name it, has been blamed for almost everything bad happening in the last years, from the success of Trump to Brexit, from the election of Bolsonaro to the (relative) spread of the anti-vax movement. The scientific consensus on the prominence and on the effect of online misinformation, however, is, at best, mixed.Continue reading “Morgue employee cremated by mistake while taking a nap”
Next month, I will give two talks – or two versions of the same talk – on “Cognitive attraction and online misinformation”. One will be in Den Bosch at the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (where I hope to convince data scientists that cultural evolution and cognitive anthropology can be useful to understand online diffusion dynamics) and one, shortly after, at a Conference on Cultural Evolution organised by The Cognition, Behavior & Evolution Network at the University of Antwerp (where I will do the opposite, hoping to convince cultural evolutionists that studying online diffusion dynamics can be useful for us).
The phenomenon of online diffusion of misattributed quotes is so widespread that got its own dedicated meme. You may have seen a picture of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, that warns: ‘Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it’. Lincoln, apparently nicknamed ‘Honest Abe’ when young, was assassinated in 1865, which makes it unlikely he had opinions about the Internet, and he is one of the historical celebrities most quoted (often incorrectly) on the web. Lincoln shares this questionable honour with the likes of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ is one of the most famous quotes of Albert Einstein. Except that is not: the earliest known exact match of the quote appears in a Narcotics Anonymous information pamphlet in 1981, some 25 years after Einstein’s death.
Few thoughts on an important paper that just appeared in Science, The spread of true and false news online. The paper received (and will receive) justified attention: it is massive (“~126,000 rumor cascades spread by ~3 million people more than 4.5 million times” in a long temporal window – from 2006 to 2017), it includes several detailed analyses (the authors did not only check basic metrics such as speed and size of diffusion, but they measured things like structural virality; the proportion of political versus non-political news; the role of bots; they run a sentiment analysis of the tweets, etc.), and it has a straightforward (and I guess welcome to many) take-home message: “fake” news are more successfull than “true” news in social media, at least in Twitter (*).
In 2013 I took the time to collect some data about the spread of a story about Oreo cookies. According to it, scientists demonstrated that Oreo cookies are as much, or possibly more, addictive than cocaine. The story spread and faded very quickly, in a couple of days in October 2013, but was reported by hundreds of English language media outlets, including prominent ones such as the Huffington Post or the Guardian.