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.