Technology

When Social Media Debunk Conspiracy Theories

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A few days after the Parkland high school massacre, an aide to a Florida state legislator lost his job for claiming that two survivors were "not students here but actors that travel to various crisis [sic] when they happen." Such "crisis actor" rumors, which have spread after several recent public tragedies, are a reminder that people are capable of believing bizarre stories that are supported by only the thinnest alleged evidence. But some pundits think they represent something more: a breakdown in the media ecosystem.

A February 20 ThinkProgress article, to pick one representative example, announces in its lede that crisis-actor tales "have spread like wildfire across social media platforms—despite the repeated promises of Big Tech to crack down on fake news." The author circles back to that idea at the end, arguing that "the viral spread of the 'crisis actor' theory, along with other recent examples of highly-shared fake content, shows that [Facebook] is still ripe for misinformation and exploitation." One Facebook post touting the theory, he notes, has gotten more than 110,000 shares, and some of the videos promoting the idea have been "viewed tens of thousands of times."

That sounds less impressive when you start thinking about the context. We do not know how many of those 110,000 shares were trolls or bots, those crisis actors of the online world. Nor do we know how many people watch a video because they're inclined to believe it, how many watch because they're inclined to laugh at it, and how many just turn it off after 30 seconds. And what other numbers should we be examining? The day after the ThinkProgress piece appeared, MSNBC posted a video of a Parkland student reacting disdainfully to the idea that he's an imposter; within 24 hours, it had been viewed more than 94,000 times. That is also in the "tens of thousands." (Of course, we don't know how many of those viewers believed what they were hearing either.)

In my Twitter feed, the overwhelming majority of tweets mentioning crisis actors have denounced, debunked, or just made fun of the idea. That could simply reflect who I choose to follow, so shortly after the Florida aide was fired, I did a full Twitter search for "crisis actors" to see what cross-section of opinion would appear. Of the first 30 tweets that came up, two-thirds disdained the idea. When I did the same test on Facebook, I got roughly the same results. Meanwhile, some (though not all) of the Facebook posts promoting the idea were getting pushback in the comments, so this wasn't just a matter of conversations taking place in separate bubbles. Actual arguments were underway.

Obviously, these are not scientific samples. I'm not going to make grand claims about how many people have embraced or rejected the rumor. But what I saw reinforces what common sense would suggest: Widespread discussion of a bizarre belief is not the same as widespread support for a bizarre belief.

That is especially true when you remember three more things. First, many of the people who believe the crisis-actor theory—probably almost all of them—are already predisposed to believe tales like this. In an earlier era, with an earlier urban legend, they may well have whispered the story to each other in person.

Second, social media tend to make marginal ideas more visible. But this increased visibility does not always go hand in hand with increased popularity.

Third, more people still get their news primarily from TV than from social media. And TV coverage of the crisis-actor thesis has been overwhelmingly critical of it. Indeed, just about all the mainstream coverage has been negative.

The idea that the crisis-actor story is replicating unchallenged in some endless cancerous pattern may play to people's anxieties about social media. For anti-gun activists, it may also play to the pleasures of highlighting the most idiotic arguments on the other side. But out there in the actual internet, people were knocking these stories down. The criticisms of the conspiracy theory may well have been more viral than the theory itself.