To help understand the spread of rumors, look at them as if they’re viruses.

Rumors “are nothing more than long strands of information seeking to reproduce to ensure survival,” say the authors of a study on the spread of misinformation.

“To stretch the metaphor further, a rumor seeks to survive by infecting as many people as possible with belief in its truth, but some people have more immunity (skepticism) than others to it.”

The ongoing study was presented by Leslie Caughell of Virginia Wesleyan University and Wenshuo Zhang and Amanda Cronkite of the University of Illinois on Thursday at the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference in Chicago. They were among hundreds of scholars — including those studying fact-checking issues through the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Program — presenting research at the conference.14712255469_356aa78fab_z

The three researchers are attempting to track the life of a rumor, building on previous research indicating that found 70 percent of people will believe a rumor and only 5 percent will reject it.

Those “rejectors” are an important key to stopping rumors, the authors note, as non-believers typically are educated on the subject matter and don’t spread the false information to their social circles. 

“Groups without informed rejectors may be particularly susceptible to misinformation,” the scholars said.

Another study presented at the four-day meeting looked at “conspiracy endorsement” and the continued belief in conspiracy theories such as the Obama birth certificate issue, death panels, the global warming “hoax” and Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the September 11 attacks.

More than half of Americans endorse some sort of conspiracy, according to the presentation by Joanne Miller and Christina Farhart of University of Minnesota and Kyle Saunders of Colorado State University.

Believing in conspiracies is an “extreme form of motivated reasoning,” on the part of the believer, the authors said, and an attempt to protect their world view.

Also speaking at the conference were scholars working on fact-checking projects through the American Press Institute and the Democracy Fund. Their full reports will be released over the coming days by API. Here are a few highlights:

  • Ratings like “Pinocchios” and “Pants on Fire” from fact-checkers are preferred by readers over fact-checking articles that have no rating system. (Michelle Amazeen of Ryder University, with Emily Thorson of George Washington University, Ashley Muddiman of the University of Wyoming, and Lucas Graves of the University of Wisconsin.)
  • Fact-checking stories written by news organizations increased about 300 percent between 2008 and 2012. (Graves, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter.)
  • Even people who were extremely confident in their (incorrect) beliefs about welfare and other major U.S. policy topics showed an increase in learning when given correct information about the subjects. (Thorson.)

The findings of several API-sponsored studies on fact-checking and accountability journalism will be published at beginning next week.

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