Information Battles v. Conspiracy Theories: Facts Losing to Fake News?

Here is Sheila Liaugminas writing at Mercatornet.

Conspiracy theories, ‘tinfoil hat’ stuff, was laughed off. Until it took hold.

Not very long ago – in the age of warp-speed technological advances and cultural shifts – serious news was discernibly distinct from social media generated buzz. Then, the old business of agitprop became the buzz of social network trolling, then turned into guerilla warfare by keystrokes on hand held devices anywhere on the globe. With the power to turn perception into reality, or reduce reality to popular comedy satire or simply the sawdust of myth.

This is unbelievable. Literally.

It started with the Boston marathon bombing, four years ago. University of Washington professor Kate Starbird was sifting through thousands of tweets sent in the aftermath and noticed something strange.

Too strange for a university professor to take seriously.

“There was a significant volume of social-media traffic that blamed the Navy SEALs for the bombing,” Starbird told me the other day in her office. “It was real tinfoil-hat stuff. So we ignored it.”

“That was a terrible mistake. We should have been studying it.”

Same thing after the mass shooting that killed nine at Umpqua Community College in Oregon: a burst of social-media activity calling the massacre a fake, a stage play by “crisis actors” for political purposes.

“After every mass shooting, dozens of them, there would be these strange clusters of activity,” Starbird says.

Starbird is in the field of “crisis informatics,” or how information flows after a disaster. She got into it to see how social media might be used for the public good, such as to aid emergency responders.

Instead she’s gone down a dark rabbit hole…

She is, and we are, charting new territory. In cyberspace, with no center of gravity.

Starbird argues in a new paper, set to be presented at a computational social-science conference in May, that these “strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.

Read more: Mercatornet

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