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Negative Side of Information Cascades

Information cascades in social networks can have a very positive impact: the dissemination of news in times of emergency, for example, can help people seek shelter or protection. They can, however, have a very negative impact as well: the spreading of misinformation.

People make decisions based on the decisions of others; they tend to believe a story without questioning or research if it has a lot of likes or shares, which results in many false stories going viral. Mainstream media makes it worse: by putting more importance in being first than being right and releasing a false story, it increases the chances of an information cascade, as people trust their information even more than other’s.

This phenomenon often increases in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, as it can be observed after the recent attacks in France. Rumors that the Eiffel Tour had gone dark in memory of the victims were all over Facebook and Twitter, when in fact it just goes dark everyday at 1 am. That information was easily checkable, but because some people believed it and spread it, even more did so. A photo of a Sikh man holding an iPad was photoshopped to look like he was wearing a bomb vest and holding the Quran, and was even circulated in the news as a suicide bomber. Misinformation can be silly like the first example, but it can also be damaging and ruin lives, like the second one.

Although trusting others information above your own can be useful, it has to be done with care in social media, as it’s easier there to start a cascade (no matter the validity of the information). Proof-checking a story is important and not hard at all.



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December 2015