Scientific misinformation flows through online echo chambers

New research examines how scientific misinformation is dispersed:

Research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences maps out the factors that influence the spread of scientific misinformation and skepticism within online social networks — and the findings were disturbing.

“Our analysis shows that users mostly tend to select content according to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest,” Dr. Walter Quattrociocchi, a computer scientist at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Italy and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. Users are driven to content based on the brain’s natural confirmation bias — the tendency to seek information that reinforces pre-existing beliefs — which leads to the formation of “echo chambers,” he said…

For the study, the researchers conducted a quantitative analysis of articles shared on Facebook related to either conspiracy theories or fact-based science news. They found that users tended to cluster within homogenous, polarized groups, and within those groups, to share the same types of content, perpetuating the circulation of similar ideas.

Is the problem echo chambers or believing misinformation (when certain people want you to believe something else)? The way this article in the Huffington Post is written, it suggests that conservatives get stuck in these echo chambers – particularly for an issue like climate change – and don’t have a chance to engage with the real information. Something then needs to be done to break into or out of these echo chambers. Once people are exposed to ideas beyond the cluster of people like them, they will then find the truth. But, it may not work exactly this way:

  1. What if people actually are exposed to a range of information and still believe certain things? Exposure to a range of ideas is not necessarily a guarantee that people will believe the right things.
  2. How does the echo chamber participation on the conservative side compare with the echo chamber influence on the liberal side? The research study found echo chambers on both sides – the conspiracy and the science sides. Humans tend more toward people like them, a phenomenon called homophily, as found in numerous network studies. Are we worried generally that people might be too influenced by echo chambers (and not figuring out things for themselves) or are more worried that people have the correct ideas? Depending on one’s perspective on a particular issue, echo chambers could be positive or negative influences.

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