Did you hear the news? A mass grave with two dozen bodies was found in Texas. Iran is banning the Internet. South Carolina's Gov. Nikki Haley is under indictment for tax fraud. Jon Bon Jovi is dead.
All of these statements are false but were at one time considered to be verified, legitimate facts, believed and shared by many. Worse yet, some people still believe them; you can't easily un-ring the bell of misinformation. Even when hastily broken news is swiftly retracted or corrected, or when fact-checkers quickly untangle, say, a politician's erroneous claim about his opponent, the damage has often been done: In a matter of minutes, a story can take on a life of its own -- regardless of whether or not it is entirely true.
Although some would argue that misinformation is a by-product of the digital age, that's hardly accurate. Individuals, companies, governments, political activists and organizations have long used dubious versions of the truth as currency. However, more recently, the Internet -- with its vast reach, inherent anonymity and breakneck content cycles -- has made spreading gossip and rumors child's play.
Yet, none of this would work -- none of the falsehoods would stick -- if it weren't for a quirk in human nature: We want to hear what we already believe. We watch MSNBC or read the Huffington Post because we want our news tilted leftward. Or we watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh because we want to see President Barack Obama and social liberals constantly lambasted. In other words, we seek what we consider the truth, and we look for it in digital echo chambers that reflect our internal biases.
"People want information to confirm what they already think they know," said Alfred Hermida, a digital media scholar and author of "Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Journalism."
The success of the so-called "birthers" -- many of whom still don't accept the indisputable fact that Obama is a native-born American -- illustrates this point, Hermida says.
"Why do people buy one newspaper instead of another?" he asks. "Because that newspaper reflects their world outlook more than the competition does. We do this in all of our media choices."
Typical of the "it sounds true to me so it must be true" story is one that, we abashedly admit, was published by IBTimes a month ago. The article, based on an erroneous report, said that Reza Taghipour, the Iranian minister for Information and Communications Technology, had announced plans to remove public Internet access in Iran and replace it with a state-controlled national portal. The IBT reporter who broke the story cited an April 5 statement on the Farsi-language site Kalame.com, which has since been removed.
The story received thousands of page views and was picked up unquestioningly by numerous news outlets before IBT was made aware of an official Iranian denial: In a statement to Agence France-Presse, the Iranian information ministry called the report "completely baseless" and attributed it to "the propaganda wing of the West." IBT updated the story with the denial by the morning after the first report went live, and it published a follow-up story further detailing accusations by Iran's information ministry that the report was based on a misunderstood hoax. Still, throughout that day, multiple news outlets continued to cite the original story without qualification; it remained the "Top News" result on a Twitter search for "Iran" until late afternoon.
Even days later, the story -- which some now believe began as an April Fool's joke -- was still clinging to life. In fact, some people on the Internet remain unconvinced that the ministry's denial of the report truly means public Internet access will not be disrupted by the government. Iran's documented history of censorship likely made it easier for audiences to take the false report seriously.
People's proclivity to believe what they want to hear has found the perfect accomplice in microblogging sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. Without fact-checking, legitimate news organizations often report what they read on Twitter -- and all too frequently and uncritically praise microblogging as an essential tool of modern-day reporting -- making the popular site a digitally amplified game of telephone. In turn, more and more people post misinformation or poorly gathered information on Twitter and other microblogging venues: sometimes innocently, in the rush to get ahead of the news, and sometimes maliciously, as a prank or to further a personal agenda.
In June 2011, an (evidently) honest -- but critical -- oversight led to a seemingly credible report that a mass grave was found in Texas. This salacious item, not surprisingly, quickly went viral. Its origin reportedly was a tipster in the Lincoln Country Sheriff's Office who told a local news station that police were investigating a report of 25 to 30 bodies found on a property in Hardin, Texas.
The Houston-based station, KPRC-TV, promptly sent a message via Twitter claiming that "dozens of bodies have been found." Before long, national wire services and news outlets like the New York Times and the Associated Press ran with the story. The Times told its followers on Twitter: "NYT NEWS ALERT: Up to 30 Dismembered Bodies Found Near Houston, Reuters Reports." But when investigators and reporters went to the scene, they found no trace of human remains.
A deconstruction of the report revealed that the sheriff's office had initially heard about the bogus burial site from a psychic who had a premonition. The authorities reportedly took the psychic's claims seriously because she had detailed and accurate knowledge of the home and the property where she believed the mass grave to be. It is unclear whether the sheriff's office declined to tell the Houston station that its source was a psychic, or if the station ignored or misunderstood the quality of the source.
The Texas mass grave story was ultimately an innocent mistake, at least compared to a case of digital journalistic malpractice involving South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in March, when she was forced to address a damaging rumor claiming that she was facing imminent indictment on tax fraud charges. This rumor was started on a little-known news blog with only one reporter.
As a subsequent New York Times story explains, on March 29, Logan Smith ran an item on his site, the Palmetto Public Record -- which describes itself as "a South Carolina-focused blog about politics and policy that goes beyond inflated political rhetoric and he-said/she-said journalism" -- claiming that "two well-placed legal experts" told him that Haley was about to be indicted.
Mainstream and widely-read news outlets like BuzzFeed, whose editor is a former top journalist at Politico, and the Washington Post, broadcast a link to Smith's story via Twitter. This immediately elevated an item that would have likely been lost in the Internet's din -- into a legitimately big story in the mainstream news cycle.
"The 'news Web' is subject to all of the same natural forces as the rest of the Internet," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and author of "Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get."
"That means everything -- right, wrong or otherwise -- has the potential for getting magnified instantly."
The indictment rumor was ultimately discredited after Haley's office released a letter from the Internal Revenue Service denying a pending tax investigation. Still, rather than backing down, Smith doubled down. In an email to the New York Times, he defended his work. "I reported that credible sources said they believed the governor would be indicted -- not that I knew she would be indicted, or even whether or not I personally believed she would be indicted," he said.
Despite his defense, it seems clear that Smith is no fan of Haley's. His site is a left-leaning blog, and he has frequently published damning posts about the Tea Party-backed governor and even about the Sikh temple she belongs to.
Indeed, it seems completely possible Smith's inaccurate item about Haley's tax troubles is yet another illustration of an individual actively seeking information that corroborated his internal narrative. Perhaps because the sources gave him information that agreed with what he already believed -- or wanted to believe -- Smith wasn't compelled to verify their credibility.
Because of the hypnotizing effect of information repeated over and over on social media, Smith's blog entry ensures that Haley will be answering questions about her alleged tax fraud troubles well into the future -- never mind that the report of her investigation was not true.
"If an untruth gets repeated, people start believing it," Hermida said. "The more something gets said, the more people think, 'Oh well, maybe there is some truth to it.' Social media can have that effect, through the repetition of a message."
At its worst, this trend is amplified by websites that openly traffic in nothing but fake news. Take an outlet like Fakeawish.com, which has a particular affinity for made-up reports of celebrity deaths. Jeff Goldblum, Cher, Etta James (who has since died), and Jon Bon Jovi are some of the well-known people whose deaths were first prematurely pronounced on the site and then went viral at the hands of the gullible.
"There always have been pranksters in the news," Hermida said. "In the past you needed to convince a journalist to publish your prank. Now you don't need to go through the journalist, you can just do it; you have access to the means of broadcast and the means of distribution."
The spread of rumors through social media -- and its ability to redirect the public dialogue into fabricated detours and wrong turns -- has become so rampant that some academics are exploring this trend in the hope of taming it. For example, a team of University of Michigan researchers has spent the last few years trying to figure out a way to separate fact from fiction on the Internet. The team's goal is to develop algorithms that can detect misinformation -- and minimize the spread of false rumors on social media.
"We aim to build a system that employs our findings . . . and the emergent patterns in re-tweet network topology to identify whether a new trending topic is a rumor or not," states the paper, entitled "Rumor Has It: Identifying Misinformation in Microblogs."
"Though understanding rumors has been the subject of research in psychology for some time, research has only recently begun to investigate how rumors are manifested and spread differently online," the report says.
For his part, Doctor looks forward to the day when humans can do some individual fact checking without the aid of algorithms.
"There's no doubt the pendulum towards immediacy over double-checked accuracy has swung," he said. "Yet, my sense is that readers are getting savvier about which 'news' is attached to which brands, and so a new hierarchy of trusting sources is being built. It's an ungainly time, given the newness of Internet communication, but I see encouraging signs of concern for accuracy re-emerging."