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December 13, 2017

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Why misinformation is like ‘wildfire’ after tragedies like Las Vegas shooting

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It took minutes for the lives of those at the Route 91 Harvest festival to be altered forever. It took hours for the city of lights to go dark. But it took only moments for misinformation to spread through Facebook and Google. In some cases, the root was confusion in the midst of chaos — concertgoers thinking bullets were flying from multiple levels of Mandalay Bay; communication on police scanners questioning if there was more than one shooter. But some untruths that got traction came from rightwing media outlets, misidentifying the suspect or linking him without grounds to Islamic terrorist groups.

Another name for such hoaxes is 'fake news.' Sites perpetrating it increase circulation by targeting keyword-based algorithms used by platforms such as Google and Facebook, according to the New York Times. Both announced measures this year aimed at boosting their capacity to identify and delete fake news postings, but even if that happens within minutes, millions of people may have already seen and shared falsehoods.

Amy Lavin, an assistant professor of information systems at Temple University, said misinformation spreads especially fast during a tragedy like the one that just occurred in Las Vegas.

"Once we start down that road of misinformation, it’s like a wildfire,” Lavin said. “The consequences are if that information’s incorrect that you can’t pull it back."

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, echoed the thought in an emailed statement: "It's not so much that people are inclined to believe misinformation in the wake of a tragedy, it's that people are understandably hungry for any information. They're so upset about the tragedy and wanting to find out what happened that they'll take in anything and everything, without whatever critical censors they usually employ. There's no solution for this, except getting truthful information out as soon and frequently as possible."

We seek these contextual details to try to make sense of a situation or world that is otherwise confusing, said Manhattan-based psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert. People “crave information that will provide some degree of calm and predictability, even if that information isn’t entirely accurate." And the urge to pass it along isn't just about the franticness of the moment. It comes from a well-intentioned place of not wanting to feel helpless, but social-media users need to think before they click that share button. Fake news aside, mistakes can be made by viable news sources and the organizations giving them information in times of crisis.

“Just as you can't put the genie back in the bottle, once information gets out, it is there for the masses to identify with, process and form some hypothesis with,” Alpert said in an email. “We saw it during the 2002 Washington, D.C., sniper case that gripped the region. The investigators warned the public to be on the lookout for one type and color vehicle, when in reality it turned out to be an entirely different type and color. There's a real danger in this because we look for, or focus on, that information at the exclusion of all other potentially useful information.”

Lavin said it’s best to wait for details to be broadly confirmed by trusted sources before extending the reach of the information. Who to trust? Established outlets that print retractions — owning up to any mistakes.

We have a responsibility to get it right, to take a step back," she said. "That’s our responsibility as (social media) users — to fact-check.”