Mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and misinformation

Cornell University
February 04, 2021

Parents - particularly moms - increasingly consult social media for support when taking decisions about their young children, and likely also when advising other family members such as elderly relatives. Minimizing malignant online influences is therefore crucial to securing their assent for policies ranging from vaccinations, masks and social distancing against the pandemic, to household best practices against climate change, to acceptance of future 5G towers nearby. Here the researchers show how a strengthening of bonds across online communities during the pandemic, has led to non-Covid-19 conspiracy theories (e.g. fluoride, chemtrails, 5G) attaining heightened access to mainstream parent communities. Alternative health communities act as the critical conduits between conspiracy theorists and parents, and make the narratives more palatable to the latter. They demonstrate experimentally that these inter-community bonds can perpetually generate new misinformation, irrespective of any changes in factual information. Our findings show explicitly why Facebook's current policies have failed to stop the mainstreaming of non-Covid-19 and Covid-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation, and why targeting the largest communities will not work. A simple yet exactly solvable and empirically grounded mathematical model, shows how modest tailoring of mainstream communities' couplings could prevent them from tipping against establishment guidance. Our conclusions should also apply to other social media platforms and topics.

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