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.
A new ‘emerging alternative ecosystem with surprising power and reach’, eh? Reminds me of the sci-fi film I recently agreed to see (against my better judgment) about a space station crew that discovered, in a specimen from another planet, a small new (emerging) life form that grew so horribly fast and dangerous that it threatened human life on earth. There’s a very edgy connection.
Starbird’s insight was to map the digital connections between all this buzzing on Twitter with a conglomeration of websites. Then she analyzed the content of each site to try to answer the question: Just what is this alternative media ecosystem saying?
It isn’t a traditional left-right political axis, she found.
Reading over this article from the interview with this social scientist professor, one of the only clear things is that this phenomenon distinctly is not the far left or right alone. It’s all over the place.
(Not unlike that life form in the sci-fi movie.)
Starbird is publishing her paper as a sort of warning. The information networks we’ve built are almost perfectly designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor.
“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”
Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”
Foreboding as this is, the battle only takes hold and gains power (as history shows us time and again) when people succumb to unchecked influences, with no reference point of truth as an original, trusted source.
We seem swiftly to be moving back to the unexamined life. We need Socrates, not sophistry.
Sheila Liaugminas writes from Chicago. She is a journalist, author and host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio.