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Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook

By Technology Review

March 21, 2014

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Computational social scientists at Northeastern University studied the Facebook interactions of more than 1 million people to examine the spread of misinformation on the Internet.

The researchers specifically examined Facebook posts of political information from mainstream and alternative news organizations, as well as pages devoted to political commentary during the 2013 elections in Italy. The team also studied how the same people responded to false news that "trolls" released into common circulation. By measuring the time between the first and last comments about a post, the group assessed the duration of debate and found it to be the same regardless of source.

In addition, the researchers studied participation in debates on posts that are known to be untrue, and found that some people are more likely to engage with false content than others. People who participated in debates on alternative news posts are significantly more likely to engage in debate over false news posted by trolls. Although people often turn to alternative news media because they are wary of conventional news sources, alternative news consumers "are the most responsive to the injection of false claims," the researchers say.

The research suggests conspiracy theories emerge when satirical commentary or false content becomes credible, as groups of people seek out alternative news sources.

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