The Anatomy Of An Internet Rumor


by Chas Danner

Last week a design company in Sweden did an experiment to study the effect of rumor on the Internet. They designed the bizarre screw seen above and then posted it on Reddit with the implication it was a new proprietary screw Apple had designed to keep end users from opening their devices (a certainly plausible idea). While the experiment was hardly scientific, what they noticed points to a severe gullibility among end-readers on the net:

[T]he blogs and newspapers that reported on the screw all fell back on that this was a vague rumor, unconfirmed, but yet discussed what impact the screw could get for the Mac world if it was in use. However, we noticed a difference in the discussions from the readers. While the reporters did not agree fully with that this would happen, pointing out that this was a rumor, readers more clear in their view. Either they perceived the news as truth, or called it fake, no grey zone in between. The split between the two camps, was quite unequal. An estimate would be that 90% regarded the screw as a fact and based all the further opinion on that, only 10% were critical to accuracy.

With each step further away from the source the perception that this would be true increased. On Reddit, where the original entry was made we see it as a 0 mode, the image was posted, nothing more or less. Newspapers and blogs that draws attention to the behavior (Yahoo, Macworld, Wired) takes it with a grain of salt, so the truth factor goes down a bit. The commentators to the articles takes it almost as 100% truth, raising the truth factor bar. The commentators / readers who spins it on in their own social media (Twitter, G[oogle] +, Facebook) defines it as the truth, all doubt is gone.

Certainly helps explain the pervasiveness of Internet rumors, especially the political ones.