New study finds in­flu­ence of bo­gus news out­lets in­creas­ing

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - LOCAL NEWS - By Barth Keck Barth Keck is an English teacher and as­sis­tant foot­ball coach who teaches cour­ses in jour­nal­ism, me­dia lit­er­acy, and AP English Lan­guage & Com­po­si­tion at Had­dam-Killing­worth High School.

Amid the many sto­ries sur­round­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma as it ap­proached the United States last week were th­ese inane and down­right pre­pos­ter­ous items:

• Ap­prox­i­mately five hours be­fore the storm surge turned Mi­ami streets into rivers and knocked out power, Ann Coul­ter tweeted this: “HUR­RI­CANE UP­DATE FROM MI­AMI: LIGHT RAIN; RES­I­DENTS AT RISK OF DY­ING FROM BORE­DOM.”

• Day­tona Beach res­i­dent Ryon Ed­wards sar­cas­ti­cally posted this sug­ges­tion on his Face­book page be­fore Irma hit: “YO SO THIS GOOFY LOOK­ING WINDY HEADASS NAMED IRMA SAID THEY PULLING UP ON US, LETS SHOW IRMA THAT WE SHOOT FIRST.”

Enough peo­ple were in­spired to lit­er­ally gun down the storm that the Pasco County Sher­iff’s Of­fice sent out this tweet: “To clar­ify, DO NOT shoot weapons @ #Irma. You won’t make it turn around & it will have very dan­ger­ous side ef­fects.”

• Sev­eral “news web­sites” pre­dicted “Ar­maged­don-style dam­age to U.S. states and cities that are not even in the storm’s path,” ac­cord­ing to Newsweek. One such fore­cast, from NewsPunch.com, had Irma “de­stroy­ing New York City by Septem­ber 10, cit­ing a fore­cast is­sued by the NHC (Na­tional Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter) on Septem­ber 1.”

Just one prob­lem: “NHC fore­casts only cover the next five days, and the path of the storm af­ter it hits Florida [was] not yet clear” when NewsPunch. com posted the fore­cast nine days be­fore Irma struck.

Aside from demon­strat­ing the com­plete id­iocy of some peo­ple in the face of nat­u­ral danger, th­ese vi­gnettes also un­der­score a grow­ing man-made danger — namely, the omi­nous power of an in­ter­net-fu­eled so­cial me­dia to gravely mis­in­form peo­ple.

Don’t think it’s a prob­lem? Tell that to Kate Star­bird, a Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Hu­man Cen­tered De­sign & En­gi­neer­ing.

“Star­bird is in the field of ‘cri­sis in­for­mat­ics,’ or how in­for­ma­tion flows af­ter a dis­as­ter,” writes Seat­tle Times colum­nist Danny West­neat. “She got into it to see how so­cial me­dia might be used for the pub­lic good, such as to aid emer­gency re­spon­ders. In­stead she’s gone down a dark rab­bit hole, one that wends through the back war­rens of the web.”

“Star­bird ar­gues in a new pa­per ... 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.”

Star­bird and her re­search part­ners an­a­lyzed 58 mil­lion tweets posted af­ter mass shoot­ings and traced their con­nec­tions to “al­ter­na­tive me­dia do­mains,” ac­cord­ing to her pa­per. Among th­ese do­mains: In­fowars, No Dis info, Vet­er­ans To­day, and Be­fore Its News, all of which ex­hibit a strik­ingly sim­i­lar agenda that is “anti-glob­al­ist, anti-vac­cine, anti-GMO, and an­ti­cli­mate science.”

Just how far is the reach of th­ese web­sites?

The in­ter­net an­a­lyt­ics com­pany Alexa says In­fowars is linked in by 28,000 other web­sites and at­tracts nearly 250,000 unique daily vis­i­tors.

Kate Star­bird adds, “Many of th­ese sites ag­gre­gate news so the same ar­ti­cles ap­pear across mul­ti­ple do­mains. For ex­am­ple, in our data, there were 147 tweets link­ing to [an ar­ti­cle de­scrib­ing the Or­lando night­club shoot­ing as a U.S. gov­ern­ment plot] on the Veter­an­sTo­day.com do­main. One hun­dred other tweets link to the same ar­ti­cle — same text, same au­thor — hosted on dif­fer­ent do­mains.”

Peo­ple look to con­spir­acy the­o­ries on th­ese web­sites for re­as­sur­ance in un­cer­tain times. Ra­dio per­son­al­ity Rush Lim­baugh, for in­stance, played on the un­easy feel­ings of his lis­ten­ers by declar­ing main­stream me­dia warn­ings about im­pend­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma an in­sid­i­ous plot: “So there is a de­sire to ad­vance this cli­mate-change agenda, and hur­ri­canes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it. You can ac­com­plish a lot just by cre­at­ing fear and panic. You don’t need a hur­ri­cane to hit any­where. All you need is to cre­ate the fear and panic ac­com­pa­nied by talk that cli­mate change is caus­ing hur­ri­canes to be­come more fre­quent and big­ger and more dan­ger­ous, and you cre­ate the panic, and it’s mis­sion ac­com­plished, agenda ad­vanced.”

“Fig­ures like Rush Lim­baugh and Ann Coul­ter earn a fat liv­ing by sooth­ing that dis­so­nance,” ex­plains Chris Ladd, au­thor of “The Pol­i­tics of Crazy.” “They tell their lis­ten­ers that their bi­ases are re­al­ity. They tell their lis­ten­ers that science is a scam . ... Thanks to [com­men­ta­tors like Lim­baugh and Coul­ter], mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are con­vinced that they can wish away the mod­ern world and all its com­plex­i­ties.”

Not even the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia — gold mines of in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion — can sort out life’s com­pli­ca­tions. In­deed, as Kate Star­bird dis­cov­ered, they’re ac­tu­ally mak­ing it worse. Mean­while, peo­ple through­out Florida, the Keys, and the Caribbean is­lands are at­tempt­ing to re­cover this week from the very real toll — in­clud­ing 67 deaths and ris­ing as of Wed­nes­day evening — caused by Hur­ri­cane Irma.

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