Beginning with the Boston Marathon bombing of four years ago, a professor at the University of Washington began to notice something strange among the thousands of posts she examined on social media website Twitter. At the time, what she found was too strange to be taken seriously. Prof. Kate Starbird was looking at tweets that followed the fatal terrorist attack. In an interview with the Seattle Times, she said, “There was a significant volume of social-media traffic that blamed the Navy SEALs for the bombing.”
Starbird added, “It was real tinfoil-hat stuff. So we ignored it.”
“That was a terrible mistake. We should have been studying it.”
And after a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that claimed the lives of nine, social media activity proclaimed that the killing was a stage play performed by “crisis actors” for political ends. “After every mass shooting, dozens of them, there would be these strange clusters of activity,” Starbird said.
An expert in what is called “crisis informatics,” or the study of how information flows after a disaster, Starbird has sought to understand how social media can be used to aid first-responders for the public good. What she has found thus far are “strange clusters” of conspiracy theories and fake news that reveal a world of alternative media that the Seattle Times is a “media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.”
In May, Starbird will release a paper in which she maps the digital connections between Twitter and the many alternative media websites. After analyzing them, she is seeking to find out what they are saying. “Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”
Starbird has concluded that the public is headed toward what she called “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” She identified Alex Jones of InfoWars -- whose attorney recently claimed that the views he holds on his website, radio show and television appearance are merely a role he plays -- as “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”
Of course, Alex Jones can hardly be the only source of fake news. Establishment media such as TIME magazine, New York Times, and the Washington Post, continuously proclaim Planned Parenthood as the defend of women, ethanol as an environmental boon, genital mutilation for the gender-confused, and Islam as a religion of peace. These are the daily bread of media that could not fathom that Donald Trump might have a chance of winning the presidential election after he voiced the fear and rage of Americans who live in fly-over country.
Starbird’s paper serves as a warning. The sources of information that many people rely on may merely serve to deepen their own prejudices and foster disinformation being propagated by zealots and profiteers. These networks are perfect for exploiting our vulnerabilities to rumor and innuendo. Which is all the more reason that people should be looking for a reference point to truth in a trusted source. Pontius Pilate, the Roman proconsul who was gulled into condemning Jesus Christ to death, asked it best “What is truth?” It is in how we answer that question that may determine the proximate future of our nation and the world. At the moment, that future appears to be very cloudy.