Snowshoeing through misinformation

Snowshoeing through misinformation

While on a winter excursion to the region of Grevena in Western Macedonia a few years ago, I happened to borrow a pair of snowshoes – a lightweight base which is attached to the sole of your boot and allows you to walk on soft snow without sinking into it. After I returned home, I went on the internet and looked up information about that particular footwear, such as who they are designed for, how much they cost and so on. It was mostly out of curiosity. The result was that for weeks whenever I logged into the internet I would be bombarded with ads, even articles, about snowshoes.

The latest Pulse opinion poll for Skai TV features a graph that associates Greeks’ concern about Covid-19 mutations with their main source of news. According to the survey, those who are most worried about the highly contagious Delta variant get their daily news mostly from television, radio, newspapers and digital news websites. Meanwhile, the poll found that those who are least concerned about the Covid mutations get their information mostly from social media and the internet. More specifically, around one in three (28 percent) of those who get their daily news from social media are “a little or not at all” worried about the variants.

It is no coincidence that anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists who like to claim a chip is inserted with the Covid-19 vaccine or that the shot changes the recipient’s DNA have found a very receptive audience online and across social media.

And, of course, as the snowshoe story suggests, the algorithm that personalizes our social media feed, including our Facebook wall, prioritizes the stories that we are most likely to interact with, based on our previous browsing history.

This means that if you start to read posts by anti-vaxxers then the algorithm will show you stories by vaccine deniers about the dark secrets of big pharma companies that want to rule the world. A relatively unimportant event all of a sudden becomes a major story across social media. As Christopher Wylie, the man who blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica, said in an interview with Kathimerini, a false narrative, a conspiracy theory which is repeated every time you log onto the internet makes you believe that it is a major issue that occupies thousands of people. A digital fantasy ends up being real.

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