A Lie Gets Halfway Around Social Media While the Truth Is Still Getting Its Boots On
Why did so many people think a blatantly fake apology from Chris Rock was real?
A couple of days after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, a guy you’ve never heard of who thought that Rock should apologize for having made a joke at Jada Pinkett Smith’s expense sat down and wrote out the apology that he thought Rock should give. Then he posted it to his Facebook page.
Although the apology was written as if it came from Chris Rock, the guy who wrote it was not trying to impersonate Rock or pretend that the statement came from him. In fact, his next post said something like, “That’s what I’d say, anyway.” But for whatever reason, the post started to get attention from other Facebook users. That, at some point, made Facebook’s algorithms kick in and elevate it, and soon enough the statement made the leap to other social-media sites, most notably Instagram and Twitter, where it was picked up and retweeted by users with massive followings.
Somewhere in that process, though, something interesting happened: people started to think, and to say, that Chris Rock had actually made this apology that some random guy on Facebook had written. And it wasn’t until Rock’s publicist quashed the story, confirming that the apology was fake, that people realized they’d been duped (or duped themselves, depending on your perspective).
Now, from one angle you could say, “Just another day on Twitter.” But the fact that in a matter of hours, hundreds of thousands of people came to think a completely bogus statement was true speaks volumes about how easily misinformation can spread via social media, even when no one is trying especially hard to make that happen. In this case, after all, there was no army of Russian bots trying to get people to believe that Chris Rock had apologized. It was more like an organic case of collective stupidity on social media.
Much of this was the product, obviously, of the way social media works — it’s built on the idea of influence and trend-following, which means that it wants its users to take their cues from others and from what others are doing. So if trusted high-profile accounts are retweeting something, their…