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The spreading of misinformation online

Bud Levin

Michela Del Vicario and colleagues wrote an interesting research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/01/02/1517441113.full.pdf). They studied how scientific information and “unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories” are spread via Facebook.

It turns out that both types of information tend to spread via homogeneous  “echo chambers.” Scientific information tends to get out faster. The rumors and conspiracy theories have a much longer distribution cycle. And neither group of people talks much to the other.

Most likely, this will surprise few of us. These sorts of processes have been going on since there has been something recognizable as science.  The challenge for policing remains how to cope with the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories as their consumers tend to be isolated from sources of scientific evidence.

The challenge goes even beyond that.  Police, too, are people, subject to many of the same social processes that affect private citizens. Police, too, may be isolated from scientific evidence.  That makes police leadership somewhat of a challenge.

So, as chiefs and sheriffs lead their organizations toward various futures, how can they best enhance the distribution of objective evidence, cope with rumors and conspiracy theories, and encourage the sharing of information across narratives?  Surely, transparency can help — rumors and conspiracy theories emerge more often when the supply of objective information is limited. But what else can or should be done?

 

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