It’s no surprise that interesting and unusual claims are often the most widely circulated articles on social media. Who wants to share boring stuff?
The problem, however, is that the spread of rumors, misinformation and unverified claims can overwhelm any effort to set the record straight, as we’ve seen during controversies over events like the Boston Marathon bombings and the conspiracy theory that the Obama administration manipulated unemployment statistics.
Everyone knows there is dubious information online, of course, but estimating the magnitude of the problem has been difficult until now.
To see just how these false and unverified claims are shared, Craig Silverman, a journalist and fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has developed Emergent, a tool that tracks the dissemination of rumors online on topics ranging from a Microsoft acquisition (true, Mr. Silverman says) to a supposed pumpkin spice condomcreated by Durex (false, Mr. Silverman says).
Many other circulating rumors remain unverified in his judgment, includingthe claim that Libyan fighters captured 11 commercial jets when they won control of the Tripoli airport in late August.
Using data tracked by Emergent, we can see that unverified claims are all over the social Internet. For instance, the missing Libyan jetliner story has been shared more than 140,000 times despite being questioned by the respected rumor-tracking website Snopes. (Mr. Silverman still rates it as unverified rather than false, however; see here for more on the methods he and his team use to classify rumors and track their spread.)
What’s even more striking, though, is how initial false reports can be circulated much more widely than later corrections. For example, the Snopes page on the jetliner story has been shared only 735 times since it was revised to classify the rumor false, a small fraction of the circulation of articles endorsing the claim.
Or take the bizarre but instructive example of the woman who claimed to have had an implant to add a third breast — clearly an example of an implausible story that was too good to check. Initial reports circulated widely on social networks, totaling over 188,000 shares according to Emergent’s data. The story was quickly discredited after it was reported that a three-breast prosthesis had been previously found in the woman’s luggage, but the articles reporting that it was false never attracted even one-third as many shares as the initial false reports.