Surprisingly, Twitter users who spread false stories had, on average, significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter, were verified as genuine by Twitter significantly less often and had been on Twitter for significantly less time than were Twitter users who spread true stories. Falsehood diffused farther and faster despite these seeming shortcomings.
And despite concerns about the role of web robots in spreading false stories, we found that human behavior contributed more to the differential spread of truth and falsity than bots did. Using established bot-detection algorithms, we found that bots accelerated the spread of true stories at approximately the same rate as they accelerated the spread of false stories, implying that false stories spread more than true ones as a result of human activity.
Why would that be? One explanation is novelty. Perhaps the novelty of false stories attracts human attention and encourages sharing, conveying status on sharers who seem more “in the know.”
Social media can be fairly easily identified and classified as horizontal propaganda at one level and sociological propaganda at another level. Ellul's book on the subject has been pretty helpful to me in the last few years so we'll let him define the terms and see whether they could be applicable to social media.
PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
Sociological propaganda springs up spontaneously; it is not the result of deliberate propaganda action. No propagandists deliberately use this method, though many practice it unwittingly, and tend in this direction without realizing it. For example, when an American producer makes a film, he has certain definite ideas he wants to express, which are not intended to be propaganda. Rather, the propaganda element is in the American way of life with which he is permeated and which he expresses in his film without realizing it. [emphases added] We see here the force of expansion of a vigorous society, which is totalitarian in the sense of the integration of the individual, and which leads to involuntary behavior.
from pages 64-65
Sociological propaganda expresses itself in many different ways--in advertising, in movies (commercial and non-political films), in technology in general, in education ... All these influences are in basic accord with each other and lead spontaneously in the same direction; one hesitates to call this propaganda. Such influences, which mold behavior, seem a far cry from Hitler's propaganda setup. Unintentional (at least in the first stage), non-political, organized along spontaneous patterns and rhythms, the activities we have lumped together ... are not considered propaganda by either sociologists or the average public.
And yet with deeper and more objective analysis, what do we find? These influences are expressed through the same media as propaganda. [emphases added] They are really directed by those who make propaganda. To me this fact seems essential. A government, for example, will have is own public relations, and will also make propaganda. Most of the activities described in this chapter have identical purposes. Besides, these influences follow the same stereotypes and prejudices as propaganda; they stir the same feelings and act on the individual in the same fashion. These are the similarities, which bring these two aspects of propaganda closer together ...
... Such activities are propaganda to the extent that the combination of advertising, public relations, social welfare, and so on produces a certain general conception of society, a particular way of life. ... the individual in the clutches of such sociological propaganda believes that those who live this way are on the side of angels, and those who don't are bad; those who have this conception of society are right, and those who have another conception are in error. Consequently, just as with ordinary propaganda, it is a matter of propagating behavior and myths both good and bad. Furthermore, such propaganda becomes increasingly effective when those subjected to it accept its doctrines on what is good or bad (for example, the American Way of Life). There, a whole society actually expresses itself through this propaganda by advertising it's kind of life.
By doing that, a society engages in propaganda on the deepest level. ... [emphasis added]
It would seem that the very nature of social media fits the description of sociological propaganda. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc can be thought of as instruments and media for sociological propaganda. However, that said, what arguably makes social media as potent as it is comes from the fact that this is not "just" sociological propaganda. Social media arguably combines the power of sociological propaganda, which seems to spring up and go viral from the ground level, so to speak, with that "horizontal" element--horizontal propaganda is the next category we get to:
This propaganda can be called horizontal because it is made inside the group (not from the top), where, in principle, all individuals are equal and there is no leader. ... But the most remarkable characteristic of horizontal propaganda is the small group. The individual participates actively in the life of this group, in a genuine and lively dialogue.
Vertical propaganda needs the huge apparatus of the mass media of communication; horizontal propaganda needs a huge organization of people.
A member of a small group must not belong to other groups in which he would be subjected to other influences; that would give him a chance to find himself again and, with it, the strength to resist.
Horizontal propaganda thus is very hard to make (particularly because it needs so many instructors), but it is exceptionally efficient through its meticulous encirclement of everybody, through the effective participation of all present, and through their public declarations of adherence. It is particularly a system that seems to coincide perfectly with egalitarian societies claiming to be based on the will of the people and calling themselves democratic [emphasis added]; each group is composed of persons who are alike and one actually can formulate the will of such a group. But all this is ultimately much more stringent and totalitarian than explosive propaganda. Thanks to this system, Mao has succeeded in passing from subversive propaganda to integration propaganda.
Horizontal propaganda could have been a proverbial "whisper network" in the past, gossip inside an organization perhaps, but social media can be thought of as a kind of bullhorn for what in the past might have been confined to a more literal whisper network.
We now live in an era in which thanks to social media horizontal propaganda is now powerfully, almost effortlessly easy. Mars Hill's use of The City and php discussion boards; Mars Hill leadership encouraging members to jump on everything social media ranging from Myspace (yes, that was a thing in the 2007-2008 period) through Facebook to blogging and Twitter; Mars Hill had a leadership culture and a general culture that embraced social media use and attempted to innovate and being on the cutting edge of technology application in this realm. The City can be thought of as an instrument for sociological and horizontal propaganda. I don't doubt that the people who designed it were not thinking in terms of those categories when they were working on it. If they had been they might have had some qualms about the nature of the endeavor but the past is the past.
As I look back on the twenty some years of what used to be Mars Hill one of the defining traits of the culture was its interest in mass and social media in particular. Driscoll made a point of deploying as many forms of social media as possible. Justin Dean has a book out in which he essentially insists that if you are a pastor or a church community and you are not using every social media tool available to you then you're already "losing" in terms of public relations.
We don't just live in an era of urban legends, we also live in an era of supermyths, myths that are promulgated and entrenched by scholars. While scholars and academics would like to believe they debunk myths Ellul has pointed out that propaganda doesn't work well on the truly uneducated and illiterate, it has its greatest power over the educated who regard themselves as such and want to make sure they are up to date. But that's arguably another topic for some other time.
In sum, when we look at social media we're looking at a compound propaganda platform. We're not just looking at something that allows for sociological propaganda but also for horizontal propaganda. The question of how lies spread is in some sense the "wrong" question, the question should perhaps first be about how anything is spread on social media by way of its technique. Then we can get to the secondary question lf whether what's distributed through social media is true or false.