Stop clicking on wacky conspiracy theory posts

A new study analyses how conspiracy theories and other "misinformation" content are shared online.

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A new study has been released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) analysing how prevalent the sharing of misinformaton (otherwise known as bullshit) is spread online using social media. The authors of the study, led by Michela Del Vicario of the IMT Institute in Lucca, Italy, looked at the speed and spread of Facebook posts and whether clusters of users formed around particular sets of posts.

The posts were organised into three categories: science news, conspiracy theories, and trolls. Science stories were general news stories informing readers of new research developments. Conspiracy theories posts used "controversial, alternative information" without proper or reliable supporting information. Troll-related posts were those written to intentionally humiliate someone using false information and sarcasm.

Sadly, science news posts had smaller cascade sizes (bursts of life) when shared compared with conspiracy theories and troll-related posts. The researchers found a positive correlation between the speed and amount conspiracy theories were shared, and the overall lifetime they had as posts of significant interest.

The scarier findings in the study were the lack of overall connection between users, the paper stating, "contents tend to circulate only inside the echo chamber". It's quite clear that our hyper-personalised and self-indulgent use of news apps and "feeds" is a poor way of opening our minds – unless it's a conspiracy theory, of course. However, the scientists found science news was shared with a wider audience quicker than conspiracy theories were.

It's interesting to note that the data used in the study did not require special permissions because the researchers used information from users who shared and posted content on Facebook using public settings.

The paper itself cites absurd conspiracies such as vaccinations causing autism, and the panic behind the Jade Helm 15 military exercises in America last year. These were unexciting military exercises that took place between June and September last year in multiple states, but some conspiracy theorists concluded they were the start of a dreaded military takeover by the government, even causing some politicians to ask and make sure this was, in fact, simply a series of military exercises. Of the many to choose from, President Obama cited the Jade Helm conspiracy as the one he found most entertaining.

The study also mentions a World Economic Forum (WEF) report stating the pervasive use of social media in this way is a potential threat to our society. It's also terrifying that so many people fall for conspiracy theories online  with one study citing half of the US population believes in at least one conspiracy  when people can use precisely the same internet connection and trusted sources to gather information about non-bullshit things and learn so much so easily.

Although the WEF report about the threat of such content-sharing to society may sound alarmist, it's easy to see the effects of online misinformation being translated into frightening things in the real world, especially politics. Take Obama's heartfelt plea for Americans to do more against gun control. His opponents immediately denounced this as an act, and that he used "raw onion" to help bring about tears.

In fact, the authors state: "Often conspiracists will denounce attempts to debunk false information as acts of misinformation." It looks like we have quite a battle on our hands, fellow residents of the NS echo chamber.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.