Some of us here say the education system is partly to blame. I disagree. It's almost totally the reason these people are winning. I was taught to think, reason, research, and check both sides. That's not the way any more. Now, they're looking for confirmation of existing beliefs and if they have confirmation from more than one source they think they've done research.
Kate Starbird of the University of Washington started out studying social networks as a disaster response system but ended up mapping a political movement that recruits from both right and left.
Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”
Starbird argues in a new paper, set to be presented at a computational social-science conference in May, that these “strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.
It features sites such as Infowars.com, hosted by informal President Donald Trump adviser Alex Jones, which has pushed a range of conspiracies, including that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a staged fake.
There are dozens of other conspiracy-propagating websites such as beforeitsnews.com, nodisinfo.com and veteranstoday.com. Starbird cataloged 81 of them, linked through a huge community of interest connected by shared followers on Twitter, with many of the tweets replicated by automated bots.
Infowars.com alone is roughly equivalent in visitors and page views to the Chicago Tribune, according to Alexa.com, the web-traffic analysis firm.
“More people are dipping into this stuff than I ever imagined,” Starbird says.
The true common denominator, she found, is anti-globalism — deep suspicion of free trade, multinational business and global institutions.
“To be antiglobalist often included being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-science, anti-U.S. government, and anti-European Union,” Starbird says.
So it was like the mind of Stephen Bannon, chief adviser to Trump, spilled across the back channels of the web.
Much of it was strangely pro-Russian, too — perhaps due to Russian twitter bots that bombarded social channels during the presidential campaign (a phenomenon that’s now part of the FBI investigation into the election, McClatchy reported last week).
The mainstream press periodically waded into this swamp, but it only backfired. Its occasional fact checks got circulated as further evidence: If the media is trying to debunk it, then the conspiracy must be true.
“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”