Why Internet Rumors Spread So Quickly

Question: Rumors seem to take hold much quicker in the Internet age, spreading quickly and infecting opinion. Is this a problem?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well I think what is happening and it’s very easy in the online world is this process of self-selection, self-selection into certain types of content and then self-acceptance of certain types of claims. And some of the emerging research and political science that I’ll be talking about at the blog and asking some of these researchers to post guest posts or interviewing them in blog posts that I’ve put together what they find is that it’s very difficult to correct a rumor among the most ideologically intense segments of an audience. So people on the right and people strongly committed on the left, once they hear a rumor or a piece of misinformation that confirms their worldview—even if that rumor or that piece of information is corrected, they still believe the original claim, and no amount of more information is going to change that belief. And that is fundamentally troubling.  That is one of the negative consequences of the online world.  Sure, you have a lot of discussion, you have a lot of debate, but the human tendency is for people to self-select themselves into ideological echo chambers or content areas that reflect what they already believe.

Question: Is this situation any different than that of talk radio?

Matthew Nisbet:  Well, it’s you know political talk radio can be thought of as sort of the first generation of new media.  Political talk radio even before cable news was maybe the first mass media commentary or news outlet to challenge the dominance of the traditional newspapers and the broadcast news. And certainly the growth of Rush Limbaugh creating this very popular radio format of conservative talk radio that did lead to a lot of ideological self-selection into that audience group.  Now, with digital media and the online world that problem of choice is actually greatly magnified.  It’s just not a problem of choice for people self-selecting themselves into like-minded ideological content, but it’s also a problem of choice when it comes to people’s preferences for news versus diversionary information or entertainment.  Even among the highly educated, if they lack a preference now today for news and information—or even news in a particular area whether it’s science or foreign affairs—they can very easily completely avoid all information or news about that topic and that is very different from the old traditional media model.  If you sat down to watch TV at 6:00 in 1985 you had three information choices available to you and those were all national or local news and they had a common set of issues that they were focusing on and topics and you didn’t have that selectivity to say, “Okay, I don’t care about foreign policy.”  “I don’t care about science.”  “I’m not going to pay attention to it.”  You were fed a steady diet, a shared agenda of information by the traditional news media.

Recorded on July 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

People tend to self-select themselves into ideological echo chambers, says Nisbet.

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