In June, a 29-year-old man who fired a military-style assault rifle inside a popular Washington pizzeria, wrongly believing he was saving children trapped in a sex-slave ring, was sentenced to four years in prison.
The judge said at the time that it was “sheer luck” that Edgar Maddison Welch didn’t kill anybody. But it wasn’t luck that planted the so-called “PizzaGate” conspiracy theory in his head: we can credit a particularly dark corner of 4chan for that.
It started with hacked emails on WikiLeaks… which got scoured for political wrongdoing in the Clinton campaign staff by a popular Reddit forum dedicated to Donald J. Trump and 4chan’s far-right fringe message board… and which wound up confabulated into PizzaGate by somebody on 4chan who connected the phrase “cheese pizza” to pedophiles, who use the initials “c.p.” to denote child pornography on chat boards.
PizzaGate is only one of a long lineage of fake news spawned on 4chan’s message boards. Reading the output of what the Guardian once dubbed the “lunatic, juvenile, brilliant, ridiculous and alarming” 4chan community can melt your brain.
But you’ve got to hand it to them: the site that persuaded web users to microwave their iPhones has always been good at clogging up the internet with its memetic fatbergs.
In fact, alt-right communities within 4chan and Reddit are veritable hatcheries from which crawl a surprisingly large number of the headlines that eventually infest Twitter.
That’s the finding of a study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Cyprus University of Technology, University College London and Telefonica Research.
The results of the study were published last week in a paper at the ACM Internet Measurement Conference in London.
The researchers studied mainstream and “alternative” news shared on Twitter, Reddit and 4chan, with the aim of finding out how “misleading, false, or agenda-driven information” spreads online, leaving swathes of duped people in its wake. They analyzed millions of posts to measure how mainstream and alternative news flows between those platforms.
The researchers found that tightly knit, highly active fringe communities are an important part of our current news ecosystem and often succeed in spreading alternative news to mainstream social networks and the greater web.
This is the first large-scale measurement of how mainstream and alternative news flows through multiple social media platforms. The paper focuses on Twitter, 4chan and Reddit because in spite of their differences, all three are generally accepted as being drivers of substantial portions of the online world; because of anecdotal evidence that specific sub-communities within Reddit and 4chan act as incubators of fake news; and because all three have a big impact on people’s opinions and actions when they spread fake news.
One of the researchers, Jeremy Blackburn, assistant professor of computer science in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, told Phys.org that the smaller, fringe communities on Reddit and 4chan are where many alternative news pieces incubate before spreading to mainstream platforms:
The content and talking points are refined until they finally break free and make it to larger, more mainstream communities.
The researchers analyzed more than 400,000 tweets, 1.8 million posts and comments on Reddit, and 97,000 posts and replies on 4chan that contain URLs from 99 news sites. The data sets covered activity on the three platforms between 30 June 2016 and 28 February 2017, with a few gaps due to web crawler failure.
Using a mathematical technique called the Hawkes process, the team of researchers measured the influence of six subreddits: “The_Donald,” “politics,” “worldnews,” “AskReddit,” “conspiracy,” and “news.” They also measured the “/pol/” board on 4chan (the site’s Politically Incorrect board) and Twitter: a platform that they said is a major influence on the posting of URLs from alternative news sites on other social platforms.
In fact, Twitter has a greater effect on spreading alternative news than it does on spreading mainstream news stories.
What does this all add up to? Well, that it’s a two-way street. Just as Twitter to a large degree influences the alternative news URLs that wind up on other platforms, such as Facebook, the alternative URL producers also feed Twitter.
The biggest alternative “news” sources that spread their URLs to Twitter are The_Donald subreddit – mostly a community of Donald Trump supporters – and 4chan’s /pol/ board, which is known for being stuffed with hate speech and racism.
The researchers note that they only looked at a closed system of eight platforms and subreddits, but it’s clear that Twitter is “undoubtedly effective at propagating information.”
If fervent groups on 4chan and Reddit succeed in getting their URLs picked up on Twitter they can be disseminated far and wide. The tiny size of communities like the alt-right nooks and crannies of /pol/ and The_Donald are belied by their outsized influence, in other words:
The influence these two communities have on Twitter is likely to have a disproportional impact on the greater Web compared to their relatively minuscule userbase.
What are we supposed to do about all this? There is little to nothing stopping sites from disseminating disinformation. Publishing is as cheap as the air that Wi-Fi slices through. Too bad that the consequences of outrageous fabrications aren’t as ethereal.
There is nothing ethereal about a deluded man with an assault rifle.
But at least understanding how fake news is born (or where, as in the case of the recently revealed Russian troll farm) is a start. The researchers plan to keep going, with their next target being to explore advanced image recognition techniques to look for screenshots shared among the different platforms, as well as Natural Language Processing methods to determine whether stories become a part of the platform’s narrative of events.
They believe that understanding how these alternative news sources influence online platforms can help in efforts to detect, and to mitigate, misleading information. Agenda-driven information. False information. Fake news. Conspiracies. Nonsense spun out of stolen conversations about cheese pizza baked in minds with overheated imaginations.
Godspeed, researchers, godspeed.
9 comments on “How Twitter outrage hatches in tiny fringe groups on 4chan and Reddit”
There are 2 major misunderstandings at play here.
1: That the spread of 4chan “Fake news” (for a lack of a better word) somehow runs independently from mainstream news.
Fact of the matter is that mainstream news like CNN are to incompetent when it comes to internet culture that they play right in to the hands of the people at 4chan. A resent example of this is the Texas church shooting
The problem is the quality of our mainstream media.
and that brings us to my second major point.
2: Mainstream media has as much blood on their hands as 4chan when it comes to spreading false information that results in bloodshed.
Case and point the Ferguson riots. A story repeatedly reported by multiple mainstream sources telling the story of “Hands up dont shoot” despite it being a demonstrable lie. CNN and MSNBC fanned the flames of racial tension with this false reporting cause a riot to happen.
It was no more real than the Pizzagate conspiracy, but that didn’t stop CNN.
I don’t think the problem is people on reddit and 4Chan, there will always be misinformation, or someone looking to cause trouble. The onus is on the news companies to make sure they are following proper journalistic ethics, and on each individual to fact check and think for a second about what they are reading, before spreading it as Gospel.
I agree that news companies should make every effort to fact check but I think it’s missing the point. A lot of information is spread peer-to-peer, particularly through Twitter and Facebook, without news companies being involved.
To be fair, the OP said the onus was both on the news companies (not to be swayed by peer-to-peer dribble) and on all of us (to engage our brains before opening our Twitter feeds).
Is this the same article that included RT in this “alternative media” category of fake using a single reference from NATO of all sources? I think people are smarter than these “objective” academics give credit for
You’re right about that. It looks to me like the academics don’t even understand what they are studying. It’s amazing how people over the age of 30 or so just don’t get how this works even if they are tech savvy. The academics are in way over their heads.
The issue here is that despite spreading the occasion bits of fake news, these sites are exposing all the lies that mainstream media puts out there, and they are doing it at lightening speed. People still don’t get what is happening.
I take exception to your comment about “people over the age of 30 or so”. And I’d wager that the academics you’re criticizing – under the assumption that they are in that age group – are actually a bunch of grad students in their late 20s or perhaps early 30s. Furthermore, I think your assessment of which group of people “just don’t get how this works even if they are tech savvy” is quite the opposite; the younger folks are more likely than their elders to be the ones getting their news from Facebook, Twitter and the like.
I think the main issue is people having more trust in a random person on Twitter than they do in mainstream media sources. While there is nothing wrong with questioning mainstream media, at the very least you should question other sources to the same extent. Even if that other source is telling you they are “exposing” mainstream media, that does not give them any validity in itself.
Twitter trending is maintained through bias. It is a loophole in human psychology. We hear a statement said over and over we start believing it to be true (I want to put in a link, but last link was removed. Effectively they did experiments on this). The funny thing is that the statement doesn’t need to come from different sources. The same source repeats a statement over and over has the same effect as having multiple sources saying it once.
Twitter is literally designed to exploit the part of the human psyche.
Never get your opinions from twitter.