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Hemsley Discusses Rumors, Lies, Social Media Virality on PBS Site

By: Diane Stirling
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There’s a popular notion that if a lie is repeated often enough, people will begin to believe it to be true.

Enter social media.

That’s where a concocted piece of information can, in a flash, be circulated around the community, country, and globe—and in no time, be multiplied by tens of thousands of listeners. But the same trend might be possible for those who are trying to counteract misinformation, according to Jeff Hemsley, assistant professor at the School of Information Studies (iSchool).

Hemsley talked to the PBS journalism site Nova Next about those questions this week in an article about social virality (“Lies Have longevity On The Internet”). The article’s focus is how Internet hoaxes and misinformation can extend for a long time and have damaging impact through social media, despite repeated efforts to correct the information.

Professor Hemsley, who has done extensive research on and has written a book on social media virality (Going Viral), told PBS that, just as lies can go viral, so can corrections of them. He is quoted as saying, “We don’t quite have a reliable way to mathematically squash e-gossip before it blossoms, but we do have one valuable weapon in the war against internet rumors—the correction.” Even if corrections don’t always quell the lies, Hemsley discussed, “they still serve a valuable function in preventing the rumor mill from continuing to churn,” and at some point, “the power of the rumor is overwhelmed by the people who say, ‘This is baloney,’ and the rumor dies down. The fact kind of kills the story because often, [the truth] is not very interesting.”

Dr. Hemsley referenced a telling example of that concept. At Stafford University in the United Kingdom, research on rumors showed that a false rumor about a tiger getting loose from a zoo was countered relatively quickly when the zoo put out information discounting the rumor. Significantly, the information spreads were similar; both the rumor and the correction achieved viral status on Twitter, he noted. “It’s almost like the viral event of the fact quashed the viral event that was a rumor. So these two things sort of counteracted each other, in a similar way, showing that noise can be cancelled with soundwaves that are mirrors of the noise.”

While there has not been much research in that area as yet, it is something that interests many, including some people at the Department of Defense, the professor added. “If researchers can find a way to cancel a viral event with a counter-viral event, then you can imagine that could also potentially be used for misinformation and propaganda. Then another avenue of research is how credibility comes into play in the actors that are spreading information and disinformation,” he observed. Since the study of credibility in information “is something Information Schools already have experience in,” that question “provides an interesting opportunity for information flow/social media computational folks to leverage existing iSchool experience in that,” he explained.

NOVA Next is a web portal dedicated to science journalism focusing on stories as told by some of the biggest names in science, technology, and engineering.

Hemsley joined the faculty of the iSchool this fall, coming from the University of Washington. He was a founding member of UW’s SoMe Lab, and he continues to work with researchers there. The lab looks at the emerging set of interactive Internet tools as having “unprecedented potential for revolutionary changes in how we work and live together,” its web site notes.

Dr. Hemsley’s current research is on information flows in social media networks, with an emphasis on social movements and political events. He builds tools that collect, curate, visualize and analyze big data sets and employs exploratory data analysis and confirmatory statistics in addressing research questions. His book explains what virality is, how it works technologically and socially, then draws out the implications of this process for social change. A recent review appeared on Inside Highered.

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