‘Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook’

Research says we’ve become addicted to sharing conspiracy theories on social media. It’s time we learnt to distinguish the fact from the fiction, says Joe Svetlik.

Did you hear? Apparently the moon landings were faked. Nasa never even went there. Instead, they took all the photos in the Nevada desert. You can tell because of the shadows.

The US Government was behind the 9/11 attacks too. Defo. Because the smoke that came out of the North Tower, it was the wrong colour, or blew in the wrong direction, or something like that.

And the missing MH370 Malaysian Airlines flight? Government cover-up. You can just tell.

The World Wide Web, and especially Facebook, is awash with this kind of thing. People keen to get the story behind the story thread together the most unsubstantial pieces of evidence to come up with outlandish theories that don’t hold water.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think. People can believe whatever they want. But the worrying thing is that we’ve become less able to differentiate between real news and crackpot conspiracy theories. In some cases, satirical news reports have been taken as read, then circulated and used to support arguments. And it’s all helped along by Facebook.

Research has found that when it comes to social media, our ‘credulity barrier’ is worryingly low. In other words, we’re quite likely to swallow this kind of codswallop hook, line and sinker.

We’re becoming less attuned to what’s fact and what’s fiction"

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston analysed how we pass on bad information on social media. They studied how more than a million people responded to information on Facebook – both credible and false – about the Italian elections in 2013. The results were a little worrying.

“Results reveal that users consume unsubstantiated and mainstream news in similar ways,” the researchers found.

In other words, with all the constant waves of information that are coming our way, we’re becoming less attuned to what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Obviously there’s an upside to all this information sharing. Now that anyone can post something on the Internet, it opens up this journalism lark to all-comers. This means stories that would normally be ignored by the mainstream media will get coverage somewhere, even if it is just on somebody’s Facebook page. These stories can often be picked up by major news outlets and brought to a wider audience.

Except that Facebook is helping to spread falsehoods just as much as real news.

The researchers write: “We find that a dominant fraction of the users interacting with the troll memes is the one composed of users pre-eminently interacting with alternative information sources – and thus more exposed to unsubstantiated claims.

Facebook is helping to spread falsehoods just as much as real news"

“Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media ‘mass manipulation’, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims.”

So people seeking out alternative news are actually more susceptible to falsehoods. This is possibly because they’re more inclined to believe whatever goes against what the mainstream media says.

This isn’t Facebook’s fault, of course. It’s not Mark Zuckerberg’s job to make people less gullible, but the social network is certainly helping spread this tidal wave of nonsense.

“The results of our study raise a real warning,” the researchers conclude, “as the higher the number of circulating unsubstantiated claims is, the more users will be biased in selecting contents.”

It’s only natural to want to believe certain things. We hear facts and opinions every day, and agree or disagree based on what fits our world view. But next time you hear a conspiracy theory touted as “the truth” on Facebook, you’d do well to take it with a pinch of salt.

Then again, maybe that research was a conspiracy to distract us from what’s really going on…


Joe Svetlik is a freelance technology journalist who penned this article from the grassy knoll.

This article is the opinion of Joe Svetlik and not necessarily that of BT.

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