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Social Diffusion: Why Do We Believe Fake News?

Written by Cyabra’s analyst, Dean Shoshana

Every post we’re writing has the potential to be exposed to hundreds of thousands of people. Those people could potentially take action following what they read.

But usually, they wouldn’t – at least, not based on one single post. The problem starts when similar content starts popping up on our feeds.

Social diffusion is described as the growth and spread, from person to person, of a one-way change of behavior. Research has shown that profiles exposed to a behavior shared by many of their friends are several times more likely to act accordingly.

On social media, this means that if all our friends shared similar content, or a similar opinion, we would be much more susceptible to it, and probably share it quickly and easily compared to others who were not exposed to similar friends’ behavior.

Here’s an example of a case that is completely fictional, but you might find yourself relating to:

  1. Aiden’s dad reads a news article in a local unreliable paper about a secret society in his son’s local college, supposedly hiding the identities of sex offenders on campus.
  2. Aiden’s dad calls his son worried. Aiden, who never heard about this and is certain the secret society is an urban legend, laughs and tells his dad there’s nothing to worry about.
  3. During the next week, a couple of Aiden’s college friends also repeat the rumor. They don’t really believe it, just making fun of the people who share it. Someone mentions she told her mom she’s actually a member of the secret society just to mess with her before coming clean.
  4. Someone overhears the conversation. They don’t know Aiden and his friends, but they heard the rumor before, and are now sure they witnessed someone confessing to being part of the secret society. They post it on social, and the post is shared a couple of times.
  5. At this stage, someone in the college’s PR department hears the rumor and wants to deal with it before it grows out of control. They post an official statement explaining that the college never had and never will have any secret sex offenders’ societies. Other people have now become aware of the story. Some of them latch onto it. Someone finds an old story about a girl who was sexually harassed on campus, which ended with her dropping out and not pressing charges.
  6. Students start posting things they saw on Campus that they consider strange, like graffiti of a symbol they don’t know, a door that’s always locked, or a building that’s been “in renovations” for the last decade. Everything is suddenly a mystery, and while the college management keeps denying the very existence of a secret society, national news now picks up the story.
  7. By the end of the month, some of Aiden’s friends found “proofs” of a secret society on campus. Others are just concerned. Some are angry with the college management for not answering the flood of questions about weird things on campus. Some have watched the national news story and were convinced, other follows a TikToker that tried asking about the topic and was kicked out of campus for trespassing.
  8. When Aiden’s dad calls him again, just to make sure Aiden still thinks the story is fake, Aiden hesitates. He still doesn’t have any solid evidence that the secret society exists, but by now, he’s heard about it so many times that he actually starts suspecting, wondering why this story won’t die out, and how come there are so many unanswered questions. Eventually, he tells his parents he wants to transfer to another college.

 

Again, this is a completely fictional tale, brought to demonstrate how social diffusion works, and how repeated content – whether we agree with it or not – settles in our minds and changes our behavior. Now, imagine if this tale was not just a huge comedy of errors that got out of control. Imagine it was created and orchestrated by someone who wanted to harm the college. This is exactly how disinformation campaigns work.

How Do Inauthentic Profiles Create Social Diffusion?

Cyabra’s ability to uncover, understand and analyze inauthentic activity has shown that inauthentic profiles whose content is being widely diffused are using content aligned with a broad public consensus. Fake profiles actually use diffusion the same way an authentic profile creates diffusion: through a common denominator. This common denominator does not have to be based on real, physical connections. It can be topics, agendas, or even a writing style. It can be an area of ​​common interest or conceptual affinity. Any of these are enough to produce an unconscious call to action among the authentic profiles exposed to the content.

Any type of online activity can encourage social diffusion, but the most significant ones are sharing and retweeting.

It’s also important to understand how social networks operate: their algorithms are designed to increase engagement and exposure and have the ability to identify hot topics and promote them. They also encourage participation by rewarding engagement: a profile that suddenly received many shares in a short period of time would reach a higher-than-average exposure on social media even if it never posted before, or posted and received low exposure. 

Understanding social diffusion and the way it influences all of us subconsciously is key to protecting ourselves from its effects. When content is repeated in your feed, check yourself – do you believe it because it keeps repeating, or even because your friends are repeating it? Why do they believe it? Has it been checked by a reliable source, or only reported by news sites? Would you believe it if you read it a month ago, before it started popping up all over your feed? And is it possible you believe it because it appears to be matching your viewpoint, your writing style, the way you think? Because even if it is, it might be an inauthentic profile, pushed by someone who identified a popular narrative and is taking advantage of it for the chance of wider exposure. 

To summarize: be aware – don’t share!