Why rumours thrive on social media (and how to stop them)

Rumours have always existed, but now they are flourishing in the social media era. While mostly produced and consumed by the users, the platforms are also part of the problem.

Amir Fard: “Social media platforms are actually media companies, and they should assume the accompanying responsibilities.” (Photo: Jos Wassink)

Social media platforms are adding a variety of new features to communication, such as anonymity and content recommendations. But these do not come without damaging side effects. “Social media platforms are fantastic environments for rumours to thrive,” says Amir Fard, a doctoral graduate from the TPM Faculty.

How do rumours thrive in the age of social media? And what is the responsibility of the ‘tech’ firms that host them?

Why are you studying rumours? 
“I used to think that rumours were more prevalent as a bluffing marketing strategy before the release of a product. But when the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election happened, we saw wave after wave of rumours engulfed the world. These phenomena gave me a new perspective and prompted me to realise how severe the consequences of spreading rumours could be.”

How severe can they be? 
“There was one way back in 2013 when the Twitter account of the Associated Press – an American news agency – was hacked. The hackers tweeted that explosions in the White House had left the US President injured. The bogus tweet was only in the air for a few minutes, but that was enough for billions of dollars of stocks to have been lost. It was a major financial crisis for such a small amount of time. And remember, this happened in 2013 when Twitter was not as popular as it is now. Can you imagine if a similar incident would happen today?”

‘Rumours are created to make sense of something that is inexplicable’

What causes a rumour to spread? 
“One attribute of a rumour is an out-of-control transmission. The intentions can vary: to attack political rivals with misinformation, to defend the flat-earth theory with conspiracies, and so on. After a few rounds of transmission, they cannot be kept in check anymore by those who initiated them. Their existence depends solely on the interest and emotional reaction of the exposed audience.

To ensure that the audience responds, they have another attribute: rationalising or coping. Rumours are created to make sense of something that is inexplicable or to deal with threats. These threats can be psychological, such as fear-mongering rumours in war or difficult times. As long as they evoke these emotions in people, people will seek a coping strategy, including continuing a rumour. Thus, rumours will keep spreading.”

You argued that vaccinating people against rumours could effectively combat them. How does that work? 
“The University of Cambridge recently had a project that ‘injected’ a series of weakened rumours to people. The mechanism works just like a vaccination. They started by giving participants very blatant rumours, and from time to time, they scaled up the level of the rumours. Afterwards, they explained why it was a rumour and how it was made and spread.

The vaccination delivered promising results, but this method is fairly new, and it has never been carried out outside the lab or university. We need some time to gain knowledge and understand this approach. But when we do, we will not need to fight rumours at all. It is like we have an automatic shield against them.”

In terms of social media platforms, you argued that they have their fair share of rumour emergence and spread. How come? 
“Our most advanced means of communication before the internet era were by TV and telephone. Television networks broadcast a message to many receivers, while telephones synchronise remote communication. These features – multicasting and synchrony – are now in one package in social media and are coupled with new communication features.

The first is anonymity: people can create a user account with a fake profile. Another one is more technological: recommendation systems. I investigated recommendation systems on YouTube and saw how they could drive users towards conspiracies, even when they started from a sterile topic. These features join up and create a wonderful place to foster rumours.”

‘It will help people know whether they are interacting with a human or not’

What action should social media companies take? 
“The problem is that YouTube and other social media platforms still define themselves as tech companies, but really they are more than that. They indeed possess super-advanced infrastructures with machine learning-based technologies, but they are influential in the news and in information circulation in society. They tend to disregard the repercussions, while their financial gain is massive. They should hire qualified people to tackle this information circulation problem. They are actually media companies, and they should assume the accompanying responsibilities.”

Can you give me an example of these responsibilities? 
“One example is social bots. The company should mark comments or any activities as bots or humans. It will help people know whether they are interacting with a human or not. There are already many studies that detect Twitter bot accounts, so I don’t know why the companies themselves have never done the same.”

Are there any developments related to your research? 
“Two things came true after I completed my research. In one of the chapters, I suggested that we need exclusive publication venues of misinformation and rumours to accelerate and make this research field more attractive. Then last year, an excellent journal named Misinformation Review started running misinformation topics only.

The second thing was one of my propositions that social media platforms should open their doors to researchers and journalists. Less than a month ago, Twitter unlocked its premium API to researchers. We can now access any tweet on any date, not just those from the last seven days. I am very pleased about these developments and what they can bring to the future for this line of research.”

  • Before exploring rumours, Amir Ebrahimi Fard acquired his Bachelor’s in software engineering and afterwards Master of Business Administration. In his own words, he founded his bedrock in computer science and then swam in a vast ocean of social disciplines. His next adventure still leads him to explore rumours, adding behavioural perspectives and simulations. In his free time, he immerses himself in movies. His favourite films are the classics Once Upon A Time in America and Wild Strawberries.
  • He defended his dissertation, Countering Rumours in Online Social Media, on Tuesday, 9 March 2021, with supervisors Professor Bartel van de Walle (UNU-MERIT, previously of the TPM Faculty) and Professor Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich).

Rayan Suryadikara / Science Desk Intern

Editor Redactie

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