Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem
Conspiracy Theories, Muddled Thinking, and Political Disinformation
Background: Examining “Alternative Narratives” of Crisis Events
For more than three years, my lab at the University of Washington has conducted research looking at how people spread rumors online during crisis events. We have looked at natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes as well as man-made events such as mass shootings and terrorist attacks. Due to the public availability of data, we focused primarily on Twitter — but we also used data collected there (tweets) to expose broader activity in the surrounding media ecosystem.
Over time, we noted that a similar kind of rumor kept showing up, over and over again, after each of the man-made crisis events — a conspiracy theory or “alternative narrative” of the event that claimed it either didn’t happen or that it was perpetrated by someone other than the current suspects.
We first encountered this type of rumor while studying the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. We noticed a large number of tweets (>4000) claiming that the bombings were a “false flag” perpetrated by U.S. Navy Seals. The initial spread of this rumor involved a “cascade” of tweets linking to an article on the InfoWars website. At the time, our researchers did not know what InfoWars was, but the significance of that connection became clear over time.
In subsequent crisis events, similar rumors appeared. After the Umpqua Community College shooting, a rumor claimed the event was staged by “crisis actors” for political reasons — specifically to justify legal restrictions on gun rights. And after the shootings at the Orlando Pulse nightclub, a rumor suggested they were committed by someone other than the accused gunman — with the purpose of falsely blaming the attack on Muslims. For every man-made crisis event we studied, we found evidence of alternative narratives, often shared by some of the same accounts and connected to some of the same online sites.
These rumors had different “signatures” from other types of rumors. In terms of volume (measured in tweets per minute), most crisis-related rumors spike quickly and then fade out relatively quickly as well, typically “decaying” at an exponential rate. But these alternative narrative rumors rose more slowly, and then they lingered, ebbing and flowing over the course of days or weeks (or years). They also had sustained participation by a set group of Twitter users (i.e. many tweets per user over an extended period of time), rather than finite participation by a large number of users (one or two tweets per user, all at around the same time) as typical rumors do. Additionally, alternative narrative rumors often had high “domain diversity”, in that tweets referencing the rumors linked to a large number of distinct domains (different websites), including alternative media sites such as InfoWars, BeforeItsNews, and RT (aka Russia Today). Several of these rumors also had a strong “botnet” presence — in other words, many participating Twitter accounts were not “real” people, but were operated by a computer program that controlled a large number of accounts.
In our very first study (about the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings) we noted that alternative narrative rumors intersected with politicized content. Analysis of co-occurring hashtags showed that #falseflag often appeared in the same tweets as #obama, #nra, #teaparty, #tcot, #tlot, #p2. As a researcher of crisis informatics, I’ve often noted how crises become politicized in online spaces (and elsewhere), but this was different, as the false flag rumor appeared to be deeply connected to political themes and propagated for a distinctly political purpose.
Strange Commonalities and Connections: Why We Shifted Focus
Initially, we chose not to dwell on these types of rumors, thinking that they had little impact on our core research questions — how people respond to crisis events and how we could make the information space more useful for crisis-affected people by detecting false rumors. These alternative narrative rumors rarely resonated within crisis-affected populations. And so, though we often remarked upon them when they surfaced in our data, we maintained our research focus elsewhere.
However, in early 2016… Continued at https://medium.com/hci-design-at-uw/information-wars-a-window-into-the-alternative-media-ecosystem-a1347f32fd8f