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The Ebola Panic: An Information Cascade of Misinformation

It’s undeniable that the Ebola is an extremely deadly virus, and that it is important for the public to become informed about the dangers of the disease and to take measures to prevent it. However, misinformation and generalized panic about the disease is spreading rapidly through an information cascade from social media websites. As more people post about Ebola on social networks, the more likely panic spreads through these websites. This article in Time discusses how social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook enable the spread of panic about the disease through the “following the crowd” effect between users and the friends they are connected with. The high frequency of posts about Ebola inevitably results in the public, particularly within the United States, perceiving the disease to be more prevalent and severe than it actually is.

According to the article, information about Ebola — both accurate and inaccurate — spreads at exponentially high rates on social networking websites. As a result of this, it can seem as if “Ebola is everywhere.” User posts on social media merely exacerbates public concern regarding the severity of the disease. In reality, the extent of the Ebola outbreak in the United States is relatively minor, with only ten reported cases amongst the 316 million people who live in the country. Often, social media users who spread information about the Ebola outbreak are misinformed and spread misinformation to other members of their social network. This inevitably results in an information cascade of inaccuracies being spread throughout the Internet.

The Ebola panic and its relationship to social media is just one example of how both inaccurate information and panic can spread rapidly through social media through information cascades. The article further describes how, in an increasingly connected world, more and more of the public is relying on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to receive news. Unfortunately, information from users on these websites is often unreliable, as it is often based in opinion and not in fact. This connects directly to the theory of triadic closure — people instill a sense of trust in their friends, and they are consequently more inclined to trust and accept the information these friends provide. According to the article, a single “false statement” on Twitter can be immediately broadcast to thousands of followers. As their name insinuates, Twitter “followers” are inclined to trust information received from people they follow as being valid. Consequently, as information cascades through a social network, it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction.


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