Berger of the Wharton School has found that news on the Internet is most apt to go viral when it touches extreme emotions -- like laughter or anger. Both are kryptonite to businesses and organizations, including political campaigns, that are trying to project honest, everyday values.
In politics, "grass roots" is everything. But social media platforms have given rise to a new strategy to watch out for: the "Astroturf campaign."
It's designed to look like the online conversations of regular people when it's really spawned by insiders shooting automated messages they hope will catch fire.
Among those watching for this will be Indiana University computer scientist Filippo Menczer, whose research team first tracked Astroturf campaigns in the 2010 elections.
"Everyone's doing it -- fake tweets and fake accounts" in an effort to attract real-life Twitter followers into the discussion, he said.
And the wide-open nature of social media makes manipulation all the more tempting. Interactive service providers such as YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter are effectively immune from lawsuits, thanks to a 1996 federal law.
"This is the wild west," Menczer said, "where there's no control whatsoever of social-media content."
Friend to friend
It's hard to knock what social media have achieved so far.
They've been credited with empowering the previously powerless, liberating peoples from oppressive regimes, exposing bad behavior among public officials.
(Some of that behavior was related to social media, such as the sharing of sexually explicit photos that drove U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, out of office.)
The instantaneous, friend-to-friend-to-friend magic of the platforms, however, also fueled swine-flu scares in 2009, when Kansas City-area schools had to respond to false rumors of outbreaks.
Even if the technology allows information -- and misinformation -- to spread in a flash, it allows countless users to fact-check and verify just as quickly, said Kevin Bankston of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free, unfettered expression on the Web.
"It's always been that a lie will make itself halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on," Bankston said. "Today, the social media turbocharges that process...
"Still, this access we all have to knowledge and instantaneous sources of information is a good thing for humanity."
The old-fashioned forms of media put out bad information, too. It was The New York Times, after all, that erroneously declared U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords dead from a shooting in Arizona -- an embarrassment the newspaper attributed to a reporter bypassing editorial checkpoints to rush copy to the Web.
But only the Wild West of social media could deliver the following fake report on the @foxnewspolitics Twitter page.
@BarackObama has just passed. The President is dead. A sad 4th of July, indeed.
A hacker had infiltrated the Fox News account, which had 36,000 followers, and began posting several reports of Obama having been assassinated in Iowa.
The fraudulent posts first appeared in the hours after midnight last Independence Day, and though FoxNews.com quickly spotted the hoax, the news network had to wait hours for Twitter to respond to Fox's request to reclaim the account.
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