There is a great story on the Atlantic’s website about a fake quotation that exploded on Facebook and Twitter after Osama Bin Laden’s death. The quote, wrongly attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. is:
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”
The author of the article, Megan McArdle, traces the origins of the wrongly attributed quote to a facebook post from a 24 year old Penn State graduate student (check out the article for the fascinating story). This brings up some interesting issues about rumors and social media. An open question regarding information and the web, is whether technologies like social media and the Internet in general increase or decrease the prevalence of false information. On the one hand, the “wisdom of the crowd” might be able to pick out the truth from falsehoods. True statements will be repeated and spread, while false statements will be recognized by a great enough number of people to squelch them. On the other hand, we know that systems like this with strong positive feedbacks can converge to suboptimal solutions. If you think of retweeting some piece of information as like casting a vote that it is true, we might expect information cascades of the sort described theoretically by Bikhchandani et al.. In this case, two things seem to have happened. Initially, there was a sort of information cascade that led to the spread of the quote. Then it wasn’t the wisdom of the crowds that led to the squelching of the rumor, but the efforts of knowledgable individuals tracing the quotation back to the initial post. What the Internet provided was a way to uncover the roots of the false information for those willing to take the time to look.
Many people, including myself, have been a little disturbed by the wild celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death. An article in the New York Times quotes a number of psychologists that explain the partying as natural cathartic “pure existential release.” It’s not until the last two paragraphs of the article that they hit on what I think was the real driving force behind the “chanting and frat-party revelry”: crowd dynamics. The article says, “in a crowd of like-minded people, the most intense drives for justice become the norm: People who may have felt a mix of emotions in response to the news can be swept up in the general revelry.”
The dynamic is similar to that detailed by Cass Sunstein in his book Going to Extremes (I’m currently writing a paper that develops formal models to explain the going to extremes dynamic). Sunstein describes a pile of social psychology research demonstrating that when like minded individuals discuss their opinions, they become more extreme, rather than converging to the mean. A prime example is risk taking among teenagers, a bunch of kids that would never try driving their car 150 miles an hour or shotgunning cases of beer on their own, will turn into drunken race car drivers in a crowd of their peers. I imagine the dynamic was much the same around the Georgetown bars last Sunday night. Riots can erupt the same way. Most people wouldn’t think of throwing bricks threw store windows or setting cop cars on fire, but in the midst of a rioting crowd our behavior can be much different.
The burst of Twitter reports of Bin Laden’s death prior to any official announcements is continuing to generate interest. NPR has an informative interview with Andy Carvin, NPR’s senior strategist for social media (thanks to Georgia Kernell for sending it to me). The event raises several interesting questions about social dynamics and the spread of information. It would be interesting to know how many false reports of Osama Bin Laden’s death there have been on Twitter prior to this that didn’t “go viral.” It would seem that a key feature of this particular cascade of tweets was the apparent authority of the “earlier adopters.” The initial tweet that got things going seems to have come from a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld. This tweet was probably picked up by other “Beltway insiders.” I would guess a key feature to the rumor’s success in spreading was the fact that these initial tweeters were people that other people trusted to know this sort of thing. That’s a difficult aspect to capture in basic compartmental models of rumor spreading, or even standard network models of information transmission. You not only need to have highly credible individuals, but you have to have a large cluster of credible individuals that are all tightly connected to one another.
By now many people have heard of how Twitter predicts the stock market. The Media Decoder blog at the New York Times has an entry today on how Twitter contributed to the leak of Osama Bin Laden’s death. A follow-up article was posted later.
“Unconfirmed reports — that turned out to be true — of Osama bin Laden’s demise circulated widely on social media for about 20 minutes before the anchors of the major broadcast and cable networks reported news of the raid at 10:45 p.m., about an hour before Mr. Obama’s address from the White House.”
“Twitter saw the highest sustained rate of posts ever, with an average of 3,440 per second from 10:45 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Eastern time. There were more than five million mentions of Bin Laden on Facebook in the United States alone.”