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Web Interconnectedness and Information Cascades: The Spread of False Information

Information propagates extremely quickly in today’s web-centric culture. The new metric of virality judges the speed and reach to which something spreads online. Posts or videos are shared around and gather huge levels of exposure. However, there is no guarantee that these ideas are correct or even sourced properly. In her article “Anatomy of a Fake Quotation”, Megan Mcardle discusses just that. Mcardle makes reference to a time in 2011 when a quotation, incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., received millions of shares, likes, and retweets on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, a woman by the name of Jessica Dovey posted to Facebook a poetic sentiment about the event, followed by a quote from King. Eventually, someone shared only the first statement she had made and misattributed it to the famed activist. Assuming that thousands of people could not be wrong, more and more users reposted this quote and the information cascaded that this had to, in fact, be a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. The spread of false information peaked when Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller posted the quote to over a million followers.

Within two days, the post had gone fully viral, and due to its virality, it was assumed to be correct. Encouraged by Twitter’s character limit, the entire quotation could not be reposted, and therefore only the first part was spread. This part what the part written by Jessica Dovey. This goes to show that we place trust that is not necessarily earned within large groups of individuals. Though information is readily available today, that information certainly may not all be correct due to the structure of virality. And just because something has a significant number of shares, doesn’t mean we should accept it as fact.



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November 2014