Admit it. Sometimes you're part of the social-media problem, spreading news and views you find online without knowing if the information is good.
Rumors and misinformation, granted, are ancient parts of discourse. But this is an election year, and social media platforms have turned the rumor mill into a supercharged rumor turbine, something that can be electronically manipulated and monitored. And that changes the political game.
Researchers will be closely watching how it plays out, especially through Twitter.
That's because they can. The open platform is enabling scientists to build computer models that help them see how misinformation travels.
"What makes social media different is that we have much easier ways of tracking how rumors spread," said Jonah Berger at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies "social epidemics."
What worries many experts -- even some ardent defenders of free speech -- is that bad information that moves fast enough and far enough, through the power of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, has the potential of warping the democratic process.
A well-crafted lie that goes viral the week before an election could affect outcomes.
That's the dark side of social media -- "there's more libel, more defamation, more urban myths and harmful information getting out," said David L. Hudson Jr., of the First Amendment Center, a think tank that advocates the tenets of our first freedoms. "I don't like to sound like a censor, I'm for free speech. But I am concerned about this open spreading of rumors ... and the rushing to judgment.
"We're approaching a sobering realization that this new, revolutionary media does come with some dangers."
Political campaigns this year will pour record sums -- perhaps 10 percent of their resources -- into establishing a presence in social media, which strategists view as both an opportunity and a potential curse. Some experts envision races hinging on the campaign errors, misstatements and smear tactics that rivals engineer to go viral.
When Twitter or YouTube push the propaganda, "it all becomes public ... which I think is a good thing," said Jeff Roe of the political consulting group Axiom Strategies, headquartered in Kansas City.
Using social media is free, making it a no-brainer communication tool -- not only for groups that seek to propagate their version of a story, but to the tens of millions of Americans on the receiving end. But Roe doesn't see it as a great bargain:
"Statements made in error that go viral can be very expensive to a campaign" when it needs to fight back.
The technologies of new media turn everyone who uses them into news sources, blasting out information, with attached links, in one click.
"There's a certain ego that goes with being the first to hear something and share it, whether it's true or not," said Eric Melin of Spiral16, an Overland Park consulting firm using 3-D imagery to chart the circuitous paths of attack tweets, damaging rumors and viral tales that spring from social media.
It may be a truth, a half-truth or the early stage of a hoax -- the finger found in Wendy's chili went viral in Facebook's early days before police exposed it as a scam.
This urge, this snap reflex to share a rumor in an instant, has a name: FOMO -- fear of missing out, or being the last in your network to know.
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