Fake news transmission follow similar patterns to pandemics such as COVID-19
Journalist : Interestingly, you have also explored a pandemic that we have all learned to live with in the digital ecosystems of the 21st century (…) Do you see any parallels between how fake news transmission happens and deadly pandemics such as COVID-19?
There certainly are parallels. One of the actual similarities is this: if you look at the individual level of sharing viral content online, it seems quite similar to the spread of COVID-19, in terms of individual steps. For COVID-19, on average, in the early stage, each case would give the infection to a couple of others. In a study of viral Facebook content, it was found that each person, on average, who shares a viral post, will lead to about two more people sharing it. But the big difference is the time scale. With COVID-19, it takes a few days for that transmission and that new infection to occur, whereas online we might be talking about 30 seconds. Very quickly, you get this much faster growth.
The other similarity between many of these infections is the variation at the individual level. As we have seen, for COVID-19, there have been some outbreaks where a single event sparks a large number of secondary infections. A lot of content that becomes popular online tends to have that feature too. We see messages spreading on WhatsApp, but often there will be some high-profile person online or some media outlet that will have sparked the outbreak and shared to a large number of people. Then, you see these smaller but secondary clusters of sharing happening. It is worth considering those elements as well. It is not just this idea that everyone is sharing with a couple of friends on a message group on WhatsApp, but it is often those more prominent organisations and people that are feeding into that.
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