Another critical factor of rumor spread is novelty. Foundational research on rumoring, conducted long before the rise of the internet and social media, theorized that novelty determines how fast and how far a rumor spreads. More recently, researchers of online environments have found that false news spreads faster and further than true news, in part due to the “sensational” qualities of the former, as Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral explored in Science in 2018. Kapferer theorized that the explanation for these trends may lie in the social and reputational incentives for passing a rumor along. There are social rewards for sharing new information of perceived value, but that value diminishes if others have already seen it. This is both why rumors often spread further than “official” information, and why most rumors eventually burn out. For election-related rumors, those with at least some “new” element will likely spread further than rumors that everyone has heard before.
People can also contribute to shaping the content of a rumor as it spreads. Foundational research on rumoring describes how rumors are reshaped in their retelling through sharpening, where certain details are added or enhanced, and leveling, where some elements are removed to make the story less complex. In online environments, participation includes adding new evidence (e.g., a person sharing their own voting experiences that align with a rumor’s claims); providing interpretations of evidence (e.g., a statistician interpreting vote count data), synthesizing related rumors into broader narratives (e.g., connecting rumors about voting issues in different locations to larger claims of fraud); adapting a rumor’s core claims to conflicting evidence; and even correcting false claims. Rumors that provide easy avenues for a large number of people to participate will likely spread fast and far.
Origins and amplification in the social network
It’s also important to understand how the location of a rumor within the “social network” can play a role in how quickly and how far it spreads. Rumors spread through social networks, both online and off — and the structure of those networks shape their spread. Rumors that begin at the margins of social networks — for instance, social media accounts with small numbers of followers and therefore not well connected — may have a harder time reaching the center of the conversation than rumors that begin with influencers with large audiences that include journalists, political leaders, celebrities, and an emergent class of social media all-stars who have gained audiences primarily through their social media activity. A rumor that begins with an influencer in a central position of a network is likely to spread rapidly.
But even for rumors on the margins of a network, as they spread, they can accumulate exposure, especially through amplification by influencers. Recent research by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Damon Centola suggests that these large accounts may serve a gatekeeping function in rumor “contagion.” Influencers, for example, may see claims percolating within their communities — they are often tagged by their followers, who wish to generate lift for the claim — but must decide whether to stake their reputation on a rumor by pushing it along. In tightly connected social networks, once a rumor reaches some of those influential accounts, it can quickly echo across the entire community. And rumors will see additional bursts as they jump from one community to the next. Thus, to estimate the potential spread of a rumor, it can be valuable to measure the current spread within and across distinct communities as well as different social media platforms.
With a rumor, journalists and news organizations should ask:
Where did this rumor originate (a social media account, website, celebrity, or elected official)?
Is the rumor currently limited to just a few posts or statements by its original source? Or is it moving beyond that original source to other social media accounts, websites, or other sources?
If spreading, how much engagement has the rumor received thus far? Has the rumor reached nano- or micro- influencers (social media all-stars with 5,000 to 50,000 followers) within specific social networks? Has it reached the megaphones of high-follower social media accounts or media outlets with substantial audiences? Has its spread been mostly limited to a specific community within one platform? Is it spreading widely across many communities within one platform? Is it spreading across multiple platforms and communities?
Inauthentic amplification or manipulation
And a final factor that’s important to highlight: the role of coordinated, and often inauthentic, amplification. Social media environments are vulnerable to manipulation — both through infiltration and intentional shaping of the social networks and through gaming of their recommendations algorithms. Though social media companies have made an effort to address some of these vulnerabilities, there are still pervasive issues with manipulation, whether it be automated “bot” accounts, astroturf campaigns, copypasta, and other techniques. Rumors produced or opportunistically picked up by actors who employ these techniques or benefit from past use of these techniques to build large followings are likely to spread rapidly.
As we approach the final weeks of the 2022 midterm elections, election officials, analysts, journalists and news organizations should all be aware of these fundamental dynamics of how certain rumors and claims can spread and take hold in our information environments.
Kate Starbird is an associate professor at the University of Washington and cofounder of UW’s Center for an Informed Public (CIP). Mike Caulfield is a misinformation researcher at CIP. Renée DiResta is research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. Emma Spiro is an associate professor at the University of Washington. Madeline Jalbert is a postdoc at CIP. Michael Grass is the communications director at CIP.
Photo of telephone switchboard operators around 1914, used under a Creative Commons license.[/photocredit[