In the article, "Network segregation and the propagation of misinformation", Professor van de Rijt and co-authors argue that clusters of people on social networks who have the same political ideology – the so-called "echo chambers" – disproportionately aid messages that are otherwise too implausible to diffuse, thus favouring false over true news.
"Echo chambers provide environments where people are more comfortable misbehaving as they are surrounded by other misbehaving people," explained Professor van de Rijt "Thus, misinformation is much like a virus raging in a community of unvaccinated individuals, who are both more likely to catch it and more likely to pass it on."
To demonstrate how "echo chambers" boost the spread of misinformation, the authors built an online social laboratory with thousands of individuals to compare social networks with and without "echo chambers".
In these experiments, populations of subjects (US residents) were assigned to different types of networks, where they shared true and false informational messages. An integrated social network with no "echo chambers" was created, in which each subject had an equal number of liberal and conservative neighbours assigned to them. To compare results, other subjects were assigned to a segregated network, containing two large "echo chambers", a liberal and a conservative one. They then introduced 32 messages into the network, half of which were true, the other half false, and asked subjects to only share messages they believed to be true.
"It was amazing to see misinformation struggle to spread in the integrated networks," said Professor van de Rijt. "We successfully designed a better information ecosystem, by rearranging people into healthier social interaction patterns."
"Our results are of considerable policy relevance, because they identify a clear direction for policy action," added Dr Jonas Stein. "Desegregating online platforms is an antidote against the spread of misinformation."
The findings of the study show that in networks without echo chambers, susceptible individuals are disconnected from one another and any misinformation they might otherwise share cannot reach them.
Arnout van de Rijt is a Professor of Sociology at the EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences. He received his PhD in Sociology from Cornell University. He is President of the International Network of Analytical Sociology and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sociological Science. Follow him at @arnoutvanderijt.
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