On Rumours, Conspiracy Theories and Facebook

I’m not fond of the term “Meme,’ mostly because any serious analysis of what it takes to be a meme and how they get transferred usually breaks down (there’s a reason why Dawkin’s stopped referring to memes and started talking about the extended phenotype), but if we accept that there are these ‘packets of information that spread virally,’ and they are referred to as “memes,” then the Internet is filled, almost to the point of bursting, with them.

There is, I think, a good paper to be written (hopefully by me) about the Internet and the transmission of Rumours. Such a paper would need to touch on memes (if only because a lot of rumours on the internet get referred to as memes and because people talk about information spread on the internet as viral)1.

One of my central theses in regards to Rumours is that they are a reliable; the way Rumours are transmitted in a community of speakers and hearers should give us pretty good grounds to say that the Rumour is likely to be true (the full story is much fleshed out and hopefully will see print pending the next set of revisions). However, my analysis somewhat relies on people doing some work to check out or verify the Rumours that they hear, and sometimes (perhaps often) it astounds me that this just doesn’t seem to happen2. Take the recent ‘meme’ about Facebook allowing third-party advertisers to use user pictures without explicit permission of the users themselves; I’ve seen several colleagues spread this rumour without bothering to do the one, easy step that every educated person should do; go to Snopes.com and check to see whether it is an urban legend (because it is)

Now, the fact that I did shows that the checks and balances of the Rumour transmission process occurs and hopefully my actions will not stop friends of mine from passing on the falsehood but will also make them more likely to check the status of the next Rumour they hear… Well, that’s what I hope, but ‘hope’ springs eternal and rarely ever quenches the thirst.

It’s tricky, I admit. If Rumours are reliable, as I argue, then people probably do have a prima facie reason to take them on trust, especially if they come from a trustworthy source, but, then again, the Facebook rumour asserts something quite… well, if not exactly incredible something that is fairly damning and should be unexpected; thus, because it is unexpected, people should think ‘Okay, my source might be good, its a Rumour so its likely to be true, but given how remarkable this claim is I should be a little sceptical of it and just go check Snopes.com.”

Which made me wonder why people didn’t. A simple answer would be that we expect this kind of behaviour from entities like Facebook, which is symptomatic, I think, of a kind of Conspiracism. We have this pre-existing belief that entities like Facebook, et al, are, despite protests to the contrary, up to no good. We believe that these entities are likely to be conspiring against us, and so rumours such like ‘Facebook is allowing advertisers to use our photos’ isn’t really all that unexpected or incredible at all; it fits with our other beliefs.

Now, there is a debate as to how rational that set of beliefs (about evil corporations and what they are up to) are, and that debate will inform the debate about when we should bother to check what our sources tell us. I was suspicious about the Facebook rumour so I checked it out; other people weren’t. Now it turns out that my suspicion was correct and the credulity expressed by others was not, but given that we are talking about reliable processes it may turn out that my suspicion was actually a bit malformed and perhaps I should have been credulous… Which is where it becomes all the more tricky and I decide to leave this to another time, a time, hopefully, that produces a conference paper or even a journal article.

Food for thought.

Notes

  1. Steve Clarke, in ‘Conspiracy Theorizing and the Internet’ has touched upon the way Conspiracy Theories are spread and a paper I have in circulation runs a comparison between Conspiracy Theories and Rumours, so intellectual profit can be made from all of this.
  2. Especially when its people I know and respect.

3 Replies to “On Rumours, Conspiracy Theories and Facebook”

  1. Some people spread rumours without any care as to their veracity, out of malice or mischievousness.

    In this case, there are grounds for believing the rumour, since Facebook does allow advertisements “that let your friends know if you have a direct connection with a product or service,” and since there were other advertisements (albeit ones that violated Facebook terms and conditions) that used images of friends to deceive. It seems reasonable to conclude that Facebook was allowing images to be used in advertising.

    1. I actually don’t think it was reasonable per se to think that Facebook was allowing third-party advertisers to use user images (which is what the rumour asserts) without acknowledging some underlying belief that Facebook would act contrary to its stated policies. Now, as I said, there’s a debate as to the reasonableness of this additional belief, but it needs to be stated if the rumour is to be credible (which I just don’t seem to think that it was and, given how easy it was to check, I’m surprised that people I know (and respect) hadn’t bothered to do any rudimentary fact-checking).

      As I said to Simon Pound, the social ads and the third-party ads are different in kind and Facebook admits to the use of user content in the social ads (and they made a big song and dance about it when they first appeared), so Facebook’s (as an entity) behaviour in regard to advertising doesn’t seem to be the factor for the associated belief that they were acting against policy, which is why I suspect the general Conspiracy Theory of ‘These kinds of entities just can’t be trusted.’

      Which, as I said, is a belief that is debatable.

  2. With online rumours, checking the source is usually a good idea, because so often people will see a story posted somewhere and assume it’s true, not even checking the link itself. Blogs that post links will often give a slightly different context from the original.

    As far as Facebook goes, there was a similar situation when they first implemented Beacon. One guy discovered his wedding ring bargain displayed on his Facebook page. They pulled the feature for a while to ensure such mistakes didn’t happen, then relaunched it.

    So the story sounds familiar. It’s not as if it were Google or another site doing this for the first time. Combined with a visible result (even though the reason is a third party application they’ve installed), it seems true enough for most people at first glance.

    (Another aspect is Amazon’s failure and similar cases, where someone’s discovered a glitch or reported a rumour on the weekend. It means there’s less staff and certainly no official statement for at least a few days, and people will wonder why there’s no answer from the company if it’s not true. If posted by a credible enough source, it spreads quite rapidly.

    Some people want to believe that a corporation has messed up, and any explanation to the contrary, however official, won’t make as much sense to them as the rumour. This is mostly a crossover with what I see in certain ideology-based circles on the Internet, though.)

    When even newspapers change the facts to fit their story, it is definitely rational to think twice about something that sounds slightly unbelievable.

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