How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study
Eric Tucker, a 35-year-old co-founder of a marketing company in Austin, Tex., had just about 40 Twitter followers. But his recent tweet about paid protesters being bused to demonstrations against President-elect Donald J. Trump fueled a nationwide conspiracy theory — one that Mr. Trump joined in promoting.
Mr. Tucker’s post was shared at least 16,000 times on Twitter and more than 350,000 times on Facebook. The problem is that Mr. Tucker got it wrong. There were no such buses packed with paid protesters.
But that didn’t matter.
While some fake news is produced purposefully by teenagers in the Balkans or entrepreneurs in the United States seeking to make money from advertising, false information can also arise from misinformed social media posts by regular people that are seized on and spread through a hyperpartisan blogosphere.
Here, The New York Times deconstructs how Mr. Tucker’s now-deleted declaration on Twitter the night after the election turned into a fake-news phenomenon. It is an example of how, in an ever-connected world where speed often takes precedence over truth, an observation by a private citizen can quickly become a talking point, even as it is being proved false.
Mr. Tucker, who had taken photos of a large group of buses he saw near downtown Austin earlier in the day because he thought it was unusual, saw reports of protests against Mr. Trump in the city and decided the two were connected. He posted three of the images with the declaration: “Anti-Trump protestors in Austin today are not as organic as they seem. Here are the busses they came in. #fakeprotests #trump2016 #austin”
Mr. Tucker said he had performed a Google search to see if any conferences were being held in the area but did not find anything. (The buses were, in fact, hired by a company called Tableau Software, which was holding a conference that drew more than 13,000 people.)
“I did think in the back of my mind there could be other explanations, but it just didn’t seem plausible,” he said in an interview, noting that he had posted as a “private citizen who had a tiny Twitter following.”
He added, “I’m also a very busy businessman and I don’t have time to fact-check everything that I put out there, especially when I don’t think it’s going out there for wide consumption.”
Not sure I’d call the creation of the tweet classic fake news but it does illustrate the central point of fake news – that people share what they believe.