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Information Cascades on Social Media after the Paris Attacks

In class we learned that as part of a network, our behavior can be easily influenced by those around us. And when this influence is permeates throughout the network, we get a “follow the crowd” cascade effect where everyone’s behavior follows the same influence. This can be seen on social media, which is highlighted with recent events in the Paris attacks.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris, “awash with emotion”. It seemed as though the world was united in support of Paris. However, among the supportive messages was also a myriad of misinformation. There was the photoshopped image of a Sikh man wearing a suicide bomb vest with a Quran in his hand. There was the resurfacing of the Donald Trump tweet from January as if it were new. Uber was accused of charging surge prices in the wake of the attack. Even less critical posts such as the rumors about the Eiffel tower going dark in memory of victims, when in reality the tower goes dark every night at 1am, shows a dangerous trend of misinformation on the internet. When one source releases a new piece of information, people are quick to assume it is correct as it is the first thing they see. This is a psychological phenomena known as anchoring. Then, as these individuals start to share the false tweets and articles they’ve read, an information cascade begins. Because everyone around us is posting these articles, tweets, or videos, we too assume it is trustworthy.

But is this effect dangerous? At the University of Missouri, a tweet was shared warning students that the KKK was on campus when in reality, this was false. However, information cascades in social media may start because of a genuine concern for others. For example, in Paris, hashtags such as #PorteOuverte (open door) spread to provide shelter for those in need. Perhaps, information cascades can be seen as a “better safe than sorry” situation. Of course, when it comes to criticisms or false accusations, we must be cautious to believe things in social media. But when it comes to emergencies and safety, the quick spread of information is undoubtedly helpful.



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November 2015