The Disinformation Virus

Oftentimes, when we think of a viral phenomenon, we imagine a spread similar to an epidemic. An initial patient zero gets the disease and spreads it to those they become in contact with, whether that’s everyone in a subway car, those unlucky enough to be too close in a restaurant, or people having a brief encounter at the supermarket. These brief encounters leading to contagion are what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been encouraging us to avoid for almost a full year. The methods of exposure represent a “simple” viral contagion. One infected person can infect hundreds of others through brief, but close contact.

Interestingly, the transfer of most information works in a similar way. News stories, viral videos, and memes disseminate throughout society through brief interactions for their universal appeal and relatability. A friend sharing a meme on Facebook can reach hundreds of individuals, even those they may not know, and successfully spread a message. This simple contagion does not require any effort on the part of the sharer, simply a like or a share online can spread the message without any major personal endorsement or stated opinion that may make one stop and reconsider.

Historically, this “simple contagion” is how many social scientists have also treated phenomena like disinformation. One person picks up a false message and sounds the alarm, sharing the disinformation widely with all those the patient zero interacts with until it reaches a critical mass of endorsers online and a fireworks’ display of disinformation shows up on social media. However, recently, some sociologists have recognized a more accurate description for how social campaigns and disinformation spread throughout society.

The new concept for information sharing is called “complex contagion” and is outlined in the book Change by Damon Centola. Under this new framework for social dissemination, the message requires more than a like or share. In order for the phenomenon to be applicable, the stakes of sharing the information must be higher. By posting a more controversial message online, new converts feel as though they are “giving something up” when they share the message, as they may lose followers or perceived social standing for their views. By behaving differently from the majority of the population, the fear of social isolation resulting from the message is higher, raising the stakes to post the message. These ideas are not simple cat videos online that have universal appeal, but rather are more polarizing issues that people seek to share only within more trusted circles, especially since stakes are much higher in attaching this message to your perceived online persona.

In the past, I have described the spread of disinformation as “ink spots,” where the idea slowly seeps through society through localized entry points. A foreign adversary does their research and identifies a receptive community to a disinformation message. As they begin to reinforce the message within the community, the members of the community begin to distribute the message to those they trust or hold similar ideas to them. The receptive community grows, not virally through brief interactions or shares on Facebook and Twitter, but through direct messages, tight-knit community chat rooms, and over a beer at the dinner table. Targeted individuals become convinced of an idea and spread it to others that they perceive as receptive, not to anyone that walks by, slowly spreading the disinformation message throughout a growing receptive community. 

This high-risk spreading, or “complex contagion,” follows a well-established Russian propaganda technique. The disinformation actor only needs a few individuals that are staunchly dedicated to the message in order to spread the idea. Once they reveal their belief to others that are receptive, the community begins to slowly spread to friends, neighbors, and relatives, until a critical mass (according to Change, the critical mass is 25% of a network for messaging to change) is reached and influencers begin to adopt the message.

To summarize, complex contagion acts as an ink spot on a piece of paper. Starting at a few localized points, a message slowly permeates through society by means of close-knit ties, not through extensive online sharing. When those you trust send you false messaging, you are more receptive to the ideas, leading to continued sharing of dangerous disinformation.

As always, Renew America Together seeks to provide information to combat the spread of partisanship and polarization in America. Disinformation, both from home and abroad, drives much of the polarization in our country. Recognizing the way that it spreads and the channels that malign actors operate on is essential to protecting yourself and our nation from disinformation campaigns.

You can report disinformation to Renew America Together by tweeting with the hashtag #USvsDisinfo and join our network of online truth-seekers to identify and combat this threat online.

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