Modern Information Spread Scenarios

We now discuss a few examples of social theory applications and recent information spread scenarios that further demonstrate the importance of understanding how it spreads as our technology, data acquisition capabilities, and communication methods advance.

Global Communication During a Pandemic

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) a global pandemic. COVID-19 infections resulted in a wide range of outcomes. Many infected individuals were asymptomatic, in which a person never showed negative symptoms and simply acted as a carrier of the disease. In more extreme cases, virus infection led to severe respiratory illness, and even death. Experts determined that the mitigation of the virus spread was critical and that, certain general safety precautions should be taken by the general population, including mask usage, social distancing, and frequent hand sanitation [9].

On both traditional news outlets and social media, information began to spread rapidly throughout both the global and localized communities with the latest news, recommendations, government orders, infection rates, scientific research, and much more. While much of the information spread was fact-based, there was also opinion-based and contentious information. Was it right to force social distancing, mask requirements, and business closures, or do such actions infringe on individual freedoms? Can the data be trusted, or was it being used for political gains or social control? Social media discourse was awash with these and similar debates and discussions. Additionally, several instances of misinformation could be found throughout the internet, from possible harmless cures to rumors of supply shortages to dangerous unfounded medical advice. Misinformation propagation became so out of hand that official health agencies had to caution against rumors and provided steps for the public to help control coronavirus rumors [10].

Governments and Mass Panic

Consider the “Salt Panic” in China. In March 2011, a tsunami following the Tohoku earthquake led to three nuclear meltdowns, explosions, and the release of radioactive material in Japan. Upon hearing the news of the disaster along with a false rumor that iodized salt could help prevent radiation poisoning, panicked shoppers stripped Beijing stores of salt. As a result, salt prices were said to have increased up to tenfold in some areas. The Chinese government and international scientists repeatedly announced that there was no reasonable threat from the radiation. Even in the event of dangerous radiation reaching China, the essential table salt found in stores would not help mitigate any radiation effects. With efforts from local governments, the false rumors were eventually quelled. Regardless, the Salt Panic demonstrates the power of mass information spread, be it real or fictitious information [11].

Shopping and Advertising

Consider another example. Amazon, the popular online shopping site, has progressive^ gained better and better insight into patron purchase habits. By tracking what customers view and have purchased the past, they offer targeted recommendations. In addition to this, many users actively post reviews of products and seek out reviews for potential products they are considering for purchase. While the first element is simply accomplished via machine algorithm and data acquisition, the second is a direct result of active information spread within an online shopping community. While advertisements are designed to entice customers to buy a product, reviewers may give positive or negative feedback and ratings, which could have widespread influence over the general positive or negative perception and value of the product. Online word of mouth is an integral part of the modern online shopping experience, which cannot be ignored.

Social or Political Campaigning

The concept of campaigning is of particular interest in the study and application of information spread. In a campaign, measures are taken to spread a message throughout a population deliberately. These campaigns are often seen in the form of advertising campaigns for products or services and political campaigns for candidates or propositions. Effective spreading of the message can be especially powerful in these cases as the initial spreader is both creating information (accurate or not) and pouring resources into spreading it, hoping for enough traction and widespread belief. For advertisers, this means the product or service becomes popular, sells well, and brings financial benefits. For politicians, voters become aware of the candidate’s highlighted promises, ideology, and qualifications (or negative attributes of political rivals) to ultimately gain votes. Both product advertisers and politicians pour vast amounts of capital into campaigns for a reason. It works and is, in fact, believed to be required for large-scale success over competitors.

Just as effective as building up a candidate or product, information spread can be utilized to tear down opponents. Countless smear campaigns are riddled throughout history. One need not look further than old election attacks by founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. During election campaigning, Jefferson’s hired attacker accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman. ” Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father. ” Adams was labeled as a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded as a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward [12]. The idea of actively spreading disinformation proved to be incredibly effective in democratic politics. Due in no small part to Jefferson’s hired “hatchet man”, he was able to win the first hotly contested Presidential election in the United States. Today, similar campaign attacks are frequent, oftentimes using exaggerated, out-of-context, or objectively false information.

Among famous product advertising campaigns, many may recall the popular “Get a Mac” television and internet campaign by Apple in 2006, in which personifications of Macintosh and Windows PCs introduce themselves as “Pm a Mac” and “Pm a PC” and proceed to act out various skits aimed at touting the benefits of a Macintosh over a Windows PC. The campaign was massively successful and gained popularity and recognition worldwide, leading to a 39% increase in Macintosh computer sales that year. Microsoft eventually released similar ads meant to parody and similarly appear superior to their competitors with nominal success [13].

Misinformation, Disinformation, and Fake News

Terms such as misinformation, disinformation, and fake news often confuse casual readers and researchers alike. This is because there is a little agreed- upon distinction drawn between these terms in modern research concerning these topics [14]. In general, however, we can broadly define misinformation as information that is simply incorrect, possibly by way of an accident or lack of knowledge. Disinformation, on the other hand, is often used to specify a subcategory of misinformation that is intentionally false [8].

The concept of “fake news” has recently become a hot topic in sociopolitical discussion, particularly during and immediately following the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. That said, spreading a fake story or he to further one’s cause is hardly new. Let us revisit the 1800 United States Presidential Election. Adams lost the election not only because of the effectiveness of the smear campaigning but also because of the application of fake news via a deliberately false story that Adams wanted to go to war with France [12]. Similar examples of untrue stories framed as news can be seen throughout the United States and world history, mainly when the populace’s views and opinions are essential (as they are in many democratically governed nations).

One must take care in differentiating between fake news and merely untrue rumors. Rumors can be real or false (and another form of misinformation), but they are generally a result of uninformed information spread. For instance, “hearing” that a celebrity has died and communicating it further (while the celebrity is, in fact, alive and well) may be inappropriate. Still, it is not being framed and presented in such a way as to be viewed by a typical reader as an official and verified true news story. Similarly, tabloid magazines with unverified stories are rarely perceived as reliable news sources and, in effect, are collections of (true or untrue) rumors. For there to be actual fake news, the story must be knowingly false to the initial spreader and framed in such a way as legitimate news.

Fake news can take many forms, from independent internet news sites to Facebook fan pages to WhatsApp sponsored messages [15]. While fake news can originate from any number of sources, it solidifies itself as appearing to be legitimate news once the story is picked up (and likely never properly fact-checked) by a widely read news source. At this point, the fake news can spread quickly and effectively in ways similar to legitimate news.

One major challenge currently is how to quickly identify and mitigate the proliferation of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news. With the advent of social media as a source of accepted news, both verified and fake news spread quickly on social networks (which can mean global spread in some instances) with little to no vetting. In fact, in modern news cycles, there is enormous pressure to release news as fast as possible, often circumventing traditional news journalism fact-checking procedures. As a result, fake news is more easily absorbed into and spread throughout the public consciousness as legitimate news, true or not. Thus, new strategies must be developed to either mitigate or proliferate fake news (depending on one’s goals) to keep pace with the modern digital age of information spread.

Controllable Information Spread

Understanding modern applications of social media information spread is both academically and practically beneficial, but what can be done with this understanding? Typically, once a good qualitative and quantitative understanding of a domain is achieved, the natural response is to attempt to influence or control that domain. The term “control” can have several negative connotations in the context of social systems, but here we mean it in a neutral and academic sense. Control is simply an active way of influencing an object, system, event, or domain to yield desired results.

How then does one control information spread? Can such control be effective with the complexity of opinions and beliefs found in an internet population? The answer is somewhat complicated, but in short, yes. Through advertising, biased news stories, campaigning, and general social influencing, overall trends can emerge that sway public and individual opinions and beliefs. Is it precise? Not really, but it is influence and control nonetheless and still proves generally effective and useful. There’s a good reason why vast sums of money are gladly spent on campaigning and product marketing: it works. One current goal of information propagation research is to quantify how to have information spread evolve with greater precision and to apply more nuanced control methods to a context-specific instance.

How to Read This Book

This book is divided into three main parts: social network theory, mathematical modeling, and control. While many readers will benefit most from reading each part and chapter in the order presented, we encourage those with existing knowledge of some topics to skip to different chapters as desired. If casual readers find that concepts are becoming too in-depth for their respective interest or proficiency levels, feel free to move to a new chapter where new concepts are first presented in high-level and easily accessible detail. Figure 1.3 gives a visual summary of the part and chapter organization of this book.

Overview of the organization of this book

FIGURE 1.3: Overview of the organization of this book.

Part I explores the basics of social network theory and presents several relationships, definitions, and structural forms for networks, with a focus on social networking. Part II delves into the concept of models, beginning with general modeling theory and development steps and ending with several models presented to describe different types of information spread. Finally, Part III gives an overview and basic tutorial for fundamental control theory and their application in information propagation.

Exercises

  • 1. Depending on the context, there are many ways information can be categorized. Systematically build a few of such categories and justify your reasoning.
  • 2. Discuss, with examples, the differences between — misinformation, fake news, and a rumor.
  • 3. Provide an example of a fake news story that you experienced on social media. How did you realize that it was indeed fake?
  • 4. In this chapter, several reasons are given to justify the importance of information spread. List and justify at least three additional examples of how knowledge of information (or misinformation) spread can be useful either as an individual or a community.

Part I

 
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