Sunday, April 02, 2017

  • Sunday, April 02, 2017
  • Elder of Ziyon
A guest post from long-time EoZ reader L. King:

Here are some interesting research results from University of Washington assistant Professor Kate Starbird on the propagation of fake news memes.   Starbird noticed a disturbing trend in the use of conspiracy theory terms such as “false flag” and “crisis actors”  staring with the 2013 Boston marathon bombing in social media, but  only began researching it seriously in 2016.  She and her students traced some 58 million Twitter comments using such terms and found that large numbers of them referenced the same alt-left and alt-right sources; she noted 81 of the most frequently recurring.  Some of these such as Global Rresearch, Veterans Today, BeforeItsNews, Infowar,  RT, Sputnik News and PressTV will be familiar to readers –  she catalogs the last 3 three as foreign news services though she recognizes them as propaganda outlets.  Canadian antisemite and Holocaust denier Jim Fetzer does show up on her list.  Surprisingly Al-Jazeera does not.  While antisemitism was not the focus of the study she mentions it as a significant factor in the sample. 

In the pictured diagram the alt media that promotes these conspiracies are in blue, mainstream media that deny them in red and sites used to confirm conspiracies are shown in green, the thickness of the links denotes the frequency in which these sources reference each other, the size of the bubble indicates frequency of use.    That Alex Jones’ heavily referenced Infowars stands largely apart seems significant but since I haven’t had cause to follow it I don’t feel that qualified to comment.   It is a conspiracy site, but I haven’t noticed myself that it comes up in anti-Semitic/antizionist discourse. 

Starbird only looked at shooting events. What she found was that those who promoted conspiracy theories would use multiple sites to confirm their position, likely without realizing that they all referred back to the same source of the rumor.  Additionally, she concluded that while most rumors die out naturally when details of the events become better known, conspiracy theories were being kept alive long after the events by a combination of true believers and automated bots using  anonymous or faked  accounts.   Crowd sourcing of information can autocorrect some false rumors, such as in the Boston Marathon case where the wrong suspect was initially identified, but the persistence and volume of conspiracy theory advocates acts as a counterargument to the Brandeis dictum that sunlight is always the best disinfectant.  We hope that it is, but it’s an article of faith.

Another key finding is that advocates of conspiracy theories behind the shootings were motivated not by a left/right agenda but by their position on nationalism and anti-globalization.  She writes in her paper:  “Likely due to the nature of our underlying data, many of the alternative media domains in our graph contain considerable material referencing various anti-globalist conspiracy theories, including ones that claim high-powered people (Illuminati, bankers, George Soros, Jews) are manipulating the media and world events for their benefit.”  

Central to the problem of identifying fake news is notion of perceived trust and the authority of social gatekeepers.   To be media savvy implies that one is capable, based on the evidence presented, of discerning truth from falsehood and part of that is based on trust of one’s sources.  Wikipedia earns a low degree of trust in political matters because of its malleability but paradoxically Google search is highly trusted even though its Page Rank algorithm isn’t a reflection of truth and only of popularity.  I cannot count the number of times I’ve been presented with search links like "Zionism+evil+holohoax” as “proof” of the writers’ insights and beliefs. 

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire algorithm for either humans or machines to distinguish between truth and falsity in the online world, which is not to say the task is completely impossible.  Propagandists can use the exact same phrasing style as truth tellers so words alone are not enough.  Recording previous corrections and making them easily available is one strategy that is being explored though potentially that too may be gamed.   Pointing out a logical inconsistency sometimes works but won’t easily undermine a true believer.   The reason for this is fairly simple – someone who is new to a scenario may be swayed either way.  Someone who truly believes in a conspiracy theory has incorporated it in to their belief system – it’s now something that is part of their education, a learned framework of knowledge to which confirming anecdotes are as easily added as nonconforming evidence is discarded.   , As Mark Twain once wrote, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” 

Obviously there are similarities here to fake news about Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians.  In the case of Palestinian stabbings the CT rumor mills routinely claim that the attacker was an innocent victim and that the knife was planted. The USS Liberty is treated as a false flag operation and Israel is blamed for created Hamas and ISIS just as the US is blamed for ISIS and Al-Queda.   Mainstream journalists will also repeat narratives without question built around common buzz phrases and ultimately from the same sources, and this gets repeated and reinforced in the comments of their readers.   As a result the readership becomes fragmented into tribes and discussion rather than moving things forward is simply a contest of which voice is loudest either by number of votes or number of advocates for one side or the other. 

The story first came to my attention on, which pointed to this article in the Seattle Times.   That lead back to her original paper.   A 6 minute streaming interview with her on this topic can be heard here.    I also came across this related article by Robyn Caplan on detecting fake news  and an article by danah boyd on the self segregating nature of e-media  that contains the useful observation that until recently both the army and the US college system were strong social forces for national community and promoting diversity, which not coincidentally one of the functions of other militaries such as the IDF.   boyd’s article on the perils of skepticism in the modern age also contributed what I wrote.  All references retrieved April 2, 2017.

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