How fiction becomes fact on social media

Hours after the Las Vegas massacre, Travis McKinney’s Facebook feed was hit with a scattershot of conspiracy theories. The police were lying. There were multiple shooters in the hotel, not just one. The sheriff was covering for casino owners to preserve their business.

The political rumors sprouted soon after, like digital weeds. The killer was anti-Trump, an “antifa” activist, said some; others made the opposite claim, that he was an alt-right terrorist. The two unsupported narratives ran into the usual stream of chatter, news and selfies.

“This stuff was coming in from all over my network of 300 to 400” friends and followers, said McKinney, 52, of Suffolk, Virginia, and some posts were from his inner circle.

But he knew there was only one shooter; a handgun instructor and defense contractor, he had been listening to the police scanner in Las Vegas with an app. “I jumped online and tried to counter some of this nonsense,” he said.

In the coming weeks, executives from Facebook and Twitter will appear before congressional committees to answer questions about the use of their platforms by Russian hackers and others to spread misinformation and skew elections. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook sold more than $100,000 worth of ads to a Kremlin-linked company, and Google sold more than $4,500 worth to accounts thought to be connected to the Russian government.

Agents with links to the Russian government set up an endless array of fake accounts and websites and purchased a slew of advertisements on Google and Facebook, spreading dubious claims that seemed intended to sow division all along the political spectrum — “a cultural hack,” in the words of one expert.

Yet the psychology behind social-media platforms — the dynamics that make them such powerful vectors of misinformation in the first place — is at least as important, experts say, especially for those who think they’re immune to being duped. For all the suspicions about social-media companies’ motives and ethics, it is the interaction of the technology with our common, often subconscious psychological biases that makes so many of us vulnerable to misinformation, and this has largely escaped notice.

Skepticism of online “news” serves as a decent filter much of the time, but our innate biases allow it to be bypassed, researchers have found — especially when presented with the right kind of algorithmically selected “meme.”

At a time when political misinformation is in ready supply, and in demand, “Facebook, Google and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.

For starters, said Colleen Seifert, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, “People have a benevolent view of Facebook, for instance, as a curator, but in fact it does have a motive of its own. What it’s actually doing is keeping your eyes on the site. It’s curating news and information that will keep you watching.”