"Fake news" has been around in some form for as long as there's been any news at all, but in the social media era (and the President Trump era) it's taken on a whole new proportion. Currently though, the term stands in for a range of different things: On the one hand stories crafted expressly for deception or financial gain, on the other, inaccurate journalism or critical views of the administration.
At the 11th International Conference on the Web and Social Media last week in Montreal, academic Kate Starbird presented a fascinating paper exploring one specific kind of social media misinformation: Conspiracy theories surrounding mass shootings. Starbird, Associate Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, has spent years studying "alternative narratives" that spring up around man-made crisis events—shootings, bombings, etc.—and mapping the links between what she describes as an ecosystem of websites and Twitter accounts by analyzing which URLs are shared by the same users, and what different kinds of content are published by connected sites.
An example of the kind of tweet analyzed by Starbird:
One of the surprising findings that emerged was that many of the sites and the accounts sharing them resisted categorization on a typical right-left political spectrum, occupying a position that Starbird says is better described as anti-globalist.
"Even on the sites that may have looked like the alt-right, a lot of them were using language to pull in people on the left," Starbird explained in an interview with Motherboard at the conference. "There's ideas we recognize as being traditionally left ideas… and then things like anti-corporate media, being against wealthy individuals influencing politics, these are things that bring in people on both sides, and that ideology was echoing through these spaces."
Conspiracy theories are then presented alongside more conventional political rhetoric, so that a site might display factually accurate content promoting sustainability or political reform, while also alleging false-flag attacks or fabrication of mainstream media coverage of an event. And although some of the websites publish these stories to attract clicks and ad revenue, many others are run by what Starbird describes as "true believers": people who are deep into the conspiracy world and feel a duty to report their alternative interpretations of current events, often using legitimate sources to support them.
When presenting the paper, Starbird also acknowledged the emotional toll that her research had taken: Since her earlier work on the topic was published, more people reach out to her to say they're concerned a loved one is getting sucked in; and on a personal level, immersion in the world of conspiracy theories can be unsettling.
"To be honest it's not that I ended up believing these things, more that I became disoriented just from being in this space," Starbird told Motherboard. "Another piece about it is that it's depressing. It can be depressing to talk to these people—some of them have contacted me, I've had conversations with them—and recognize the vulnerabilities we have, the way we're all vulnerable in this new information space."
Unfortunately, Starbird's research only further illustrates how complicated the problem is, and can't provide a silver bullet solution to the problem that has so much of the media and political establishment stumped. Still, the rigor and openness of academic methodology is a welcome addition to the battle against misinformation, and the positive response the paper received from other conference attendees suggests that others in the field are willing to join the fight.