How misinformation goes viral: a Truthy story

Conservative media’s reaction to an Indiana University project shows how shoddy information can quickly become an online narrative.

On August 26, Fox’s Megyn Kelly aired a four-minute segment on an Indiana University project called Truthy, declaring sarcastically, “Some bureaucrat deciding whether you are being hateful or misinforming people — what could possibly go wrong?” Fox & Friends jumped onto the bandwagon two days later. During its four-minute segment, legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. managed to squeeze in not only a comparison to Joseph McCarthy, but also a reference to George Orwell’s 1984. “Is the First Amendment going into the dumper?” he asks.

The segments can be traced to a story published on a right-wing news site the previous Monday, which spawned a conspiratorial narrative that soon metastasized throughout social media and the conservative blogosphere. By Thursday, the Fox television programs had spread the Orwellian gospel to nearly 3.5 million estimated viewers, not including those online. 

But Truthy isn’t new. Indiana University researchers have spent more than three years on the projectThey analyze the way information — including misinformation — spreads on Twitter, focusing on virality and how various communities share political discourse through hashtags, retweets, and mentions. 

None of the journalists “reporting” on Truthy last week explained the scope of the project, including more than 30 published papers, when crafting their viral output. Instead, they pointed to a two-paragraph abstract in Truthy’s $919,917 National Science Foundation grant, awarded in 2011, as evidence of a link to government surveillance programs. This has all been public since 2011 per grant rules, so it’s unclear why conservative media put it in the crosshairs now.

“We were completely blindsided,” said project leader Filippo Menczer, adding that CJR on Thursday was the first media outlet to speak with him. Menczer had just finalized plans with his research team to analyze how Monday’s story in the Washington Free Beacon — “patient zero” in contagion parlance — had become a viral meme in and of itself.

“It’s weird to do an analysis on something that’s happening to us,” he said.



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