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How Misinformation Spreads

I wrote recently about the importance of doctors having an understanding of the sources of information people turn to when researching their condition, and of course the knowledge they gain from that research.  Whilst this is obviously important in understanding the positive aspects of online research, it carries even more importance when understanding the spread of misinformation.

With the Ebola situation in West Africa raising concerns around the western world, this has never been a more topical issue.  A new study looking at the diffusion of misinformation should be of interest therefore.  The Indian study, conducted by computer science academics from BITS-Pilani, explores the way bad information can quickly spread throughout social networks.

A particular focus for their research is on the deliberate insertion of false information into a network with the aim of causing panic and confusion.  They suggest that the popularity of social networks make the detection of such attacks even more of a challenge, as the tight coupling found in social networks can cause the spread of bad information to be incredibly swift.

The researchers raise the example of the swine flu outbreak in 2009 and the way panic quickly spread online, causing peculiar behaviours 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.

For instance, the friendship links on Facebook or the follower/followee relationship on Twitter have a big impact on the reach of any given update on the respective service.  It’s probably safe to say that no one will be planning the kind of semantic attack highlighted by the research over the Ebola outbreak, but with wars taking place in Ukraine and Gaza at the moment it’s easy to imagine such misinformation being used as part of a propaganda war.

A study from earlier in the 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.

Indeed, such is the concern over this issue, a tool, backed by the US Military and the National Science Foundation, has been developed to try and both detect fake participants in online networks, and as a result, understand the spread of misinformation through networks more effectively.

misinformation / shutterstock

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