Why are false allegations so popular on the internet?
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Given most people already know the web is brimming with phony information (after all, who on the planet has yet to receive a scam email?) users should be naturally suspicious and sceptical of the internet. Yet hoax electronic rumours and gossip continue to grow, not diminish.
What appears a rising epidemic of falsity is therefore a psychological conundrum.
Cass Sunstein, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School in a recent book chapter and a working paper on this subject, points out that such rumours are of increasing importance – political and legal.
Sunstein’s chapter, entitled ‘Believing false rumors’ is published in a definitive book on malicious internet gossip; ‘The Offensive Internet: Speech, privacy, and reputation’ published by Harvard University Press and edited by Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum. His working paper is entitled ”She Said What?’ ‘He Did That?’ Believing False Rumors’,and referred to asHarvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-56.
Sunstein points out understanding how false allegations spread involves grasping the underlying mechanics of an internet rumour. Information cascades begin with ‘propagators’. Propagators start false rumours often because they are motivated by some kind of self-serving interest, which could include getting attention. They may want to malign an individual, movement or corporation for personal reasons.
Receivers and disseminators of false information, those who take the baton from the ‘propagators’ and pass it on to the wider world, seem to not allow enough for the motivation of ‘propagators’. They don’t ‘discount’ the dodgy. Instead they often seem to falsely assume that rumours are being spread for altruistic reasons, to warn and therefore protect. As opposed to real world conversation, perhaps the underlying vested interest of the internet ‘propagator’ remains more difficult to detect.
Successful rumours are purposefully aligned with what Sunstein refers to as ‘priors’; the prior beliefs of large swathes of the population. A spreading rumour succeeds because it often confirms prior prejudices.
If you have little or no information of your own to check or compare against a rumour, the very fact a large number of other people believe, becomes evidence in itself that it must be true. This is how a rumour feeds on itself to grow in strength.
Even if a rumour starts with just the most gullible believing it, then as it spreads and this number grows, the sheer fact of such a growing consensus convinces the more sceptical. It must be true because so many believe it. This is how rumours confirm themselves.
As a rumour gathers pace, despite the possibility there are many who harbour doubts about its veracity, these doubters tend to keep misgivings to themselves. They prefer to conform, don’t desire negative attention or want to appear out of step with the group. The balancing effect of counter views get swept aside in the tsunami of a rampant rumour.
Doubts may exist but remain private, as a result they are less visible on the internet. If only those who believe a rumour are salient, because they are motivated to spread allegations, then rumours escalate because they crush any opposition before them through sheer weight of numbers.
Cleverly designed rumours make anyone appearing to oppose or doubt them, appear to be supporters of the immoral behaviour being gossiped about. So expressing doubts about the veracity of an allegation concerning someone at the centre of a paedophile accusation looks like support for paedophilia, when it’s no such thing. Voicing doubts can also appear as lacking concern over the issue.
Sunstein cites experiments, using music downloads, on how much we are influenced by others’ behaviour in forming our own judgements. Music choice was chosen because theoretically what we like is a personal preference.
The research he cites found that songs which were popular or unpopular in the control group, where other’s downloads, and therefore judgments were not available, performed very differently in the sections of the experiments where others’ choices were made visible. In those conditions of the experiment, most songs could become popular or unpopular, influenced by the choices of the first downloaders. The identical song could be a hit or a failure, simply because others, at the start of the experiment, were seen to choose to download it or not.
Perhaps the most under-estimated psychological mechanism by which false allegations rapidly gain widespread support on the internet is a process Sunstein refers to as ‘group polarisation’. This process is important because the group taking part will not be aware that they are involved in spreading a false allegation, they will think instead they are dispassionately discussing it.
Group polarisation is a well known tendency for any cluster who are merely discussing something to shift in a more extreme position in the direction they were predisposed to. When individual members of a gathering tend to take risks, a ‘risky shift’ is observed when they get together to make a decision. Where members are individually cautious, even more caution emerges when in a group.
Risky and cautious shift are both examples of group polarization. Group polarization occurs in a wide range of contexts, all bearing on rumour transmission. For example Sunstein cites a study posing the question how attractive are people in photographs? Group deliberation generates more extreme judgments: If individuals think someone is good-looking, the group is likely to conclude that the same individual is devastatingly attractive. Sunstein argues movie stars benefit from this psychological process.
Malicious gossip, if unchecked, could end up influencing who governs us. If it weren’t for the spread of such sham information on the internet, thousands wouldn’t gossip and believe Barack Obama is an Islamist extremist, who was not born in the United States.
If the internet becomes what we know of the world, the rising spread of deception is particularly ominous. Checks and balances that apply elsewhere are ruled out by the very sprawling freedom of the web.
Official attempts to quash rumours often backfire and even end up lending them more credibility. Perhaps the answer is that all users of the internet need to guard against malicious gossip as opposed to relying on someone else to do it.
Because whoever is tasked with controlling rumour on the internet will themselves become the subject of gossip.