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Fake Quotes on the Internet and their Cascading Effect

Due to the massive vitality of social media, information can spread incredibly quickly. This power is applied unadulterated to any type of information, whether it be false or not. Before we look at a specific situation, let’s first imagine what a twitter information cascade looks like.

Let’s imagine each person on twitter has 500 followers. For each tweet, about 2% of their followers retweet it, meaning that for 1 post, it is retweeted 10 times. If 2% of those retweeter’s 500 followers retweet the post, it is spread to 10*10 = 100 times. However, for each tweet, 500 people see it. A tweet can be modeled as being seen by 500(10^n) people, n being the amount of waves of retweets. This means it can very quickly reach a huge number of people, needing only 3 rounds of retweets to reach 500,000 people.

This is not a force for good or evil, but it is undeniably powerful. It could be used to raise awareness about an event stupendously quickly, but it could also be used to disseminate false information.

When Osama Bin Laden was killed, this tweet was spreading rapidly. “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr” It seems like a nice sentiment, but it turns out, it’s completely made up. What happened is an English teacher in Korea posted a facebook status containing the above quote, without quotation marks, in front of an excerpt of an MLK speech, in quotation marks. At some point, someone reposted the status but omitted the quotation marks. Another user must have considered to be the most poignant passage, and tweeted it. It was tweeted by Penn Gillette to his 1.6 million followers, and had 9000 hits on google in matter of hours. A completely false quote was seen, and presumed to be true, by millions of people before it was noticed to be a sham. Even after exposure, it was retweeted and reposted without mention of its falsity.

This goes to show how an information cascade can occur without regard for its content. The other lesson is to observe tweets with a discerning eye.


Story and information from Anatomy of a False Quotation, The Atlantic.



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