Researcher Tracking the Viral Growth of False Stories Online

We’ve all heard that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. Thanks to thousands of blogs, forums and alternative news sources online, the internet has become a breeding ground for misinformation. Even stories of little green men from outer space have gained a following of believers around the world.

Media and Information Assistant Professor Josh Introne has been researching this dedicated following of extraterrestrials to understand how and why false stories seem to grow so successfully in online conversations. While it may not be the “fake news” we’re most familiar with, Introne has been tracking a 10-year-long conversation about alien visitation. He presented his findings at the International Conference on Social Media and Society in Toronto this summer.

Growing False Stories Online
Introne refers to these misleading virtual narratives as “pseudo-knowledge.” This sort of widespread misinformation is troubling, not only because it is inaccurate, but also because it can “persist in the face of attempts to correct it,” which means it can begin to influence what the larger community deems to be true.

“We find that pseudo-knowledge adapts online, like an organism, in ways that make it easier to defend and spread,” said Introne.

This happens for two reasons. The first is that online pseudo-knowledge is exposed to a number of people who attack its validity. Unfortunately, these attacks only damage the story’s weak parts, which are quickly replaced by new parts that are easier to defend.

“This is like how some vaccines work,” said Introne. “A vaccine is a weak form of a pathogen, and when our bodies are exposed to it, our immune systems create defense mechanisms that work against even stronger forms of the virus.”

In the case of pseudo-knowledge, attacks are like a vaccine that only serve to make it stronger.

“The second reason has to do with the community that develops around the pseudo-knowledge,” said Introne. “It’s important to understand that pseudo-knowledge grows through a kind of group-storytelling. Lots of people are available online to contribute and bring lots of diverse knowledge and interests to the discussion.”

A Community Narrative
Introne and his research team, including Spartans Julia DeCook, Irem Gokce Yildirim and Shaima Elzeini, followed a 10-year-long conversation about aliens visiting Earth. They collected data and analyzed content to better understand how the conversation unfolded. The team also used a type of narrative analysis to determine how the story was changing over time and found that there was a hierarchy of individuals responsible for the “official” version of the story.

“We observed that people who are proven to be trustworthy and intelligent are allowed to contribute to the story, and in doing so, become part of the group responsible for it,” said Introne. “Both the community and story itself grow like a tree: the original contributor guards the trunk, and those who contribute branches defend both the branches and the trunk.”

Though there is clear misinformation that is used as “evidence” in the creation of this pseudo-knowledge, Introne found that there is also a good amount of reasoning and careful research included.

“Over time, all of this gets woven into a dense thicket of information that’s pretty hard to disentangle,” said Introne. “In this way, pseudo-knowledge becomes a natural home where misinformation can be woven into a belief system.”

Moving Forward
The role of the internet in the sharing of information is ever-increasing, and Introne’s research is far from complete. In the future, Introne wants to see if the findings in the ancient alien theories domain hold up in other domains, like extremism. He is also planning to conduct some additional experiments.

“I’m hoping to test the evolutionary fitness of different kinds of narratives,” said Introne. “Ultimately, our goal is to figure out how the structure, rather than the content, of a story might influence its ability to thrive in a social network.”

By Kaitlin Dudlets