WASHINGTON — It's a common experience. You log on to Facebook for your lunchtime fix of friends' baby photos and links to fascinating online content from trusted sites like Slate, when you come across an intriguing headline such as "Stephen Hawking's Blunder on Black Holes Shows Danger of Listening to Scientists, Says Bachmann" or "Sochi Hotel Guests Complain About Topless Portraits of Putin in Rooms."
These stories aren't real. They're the work of the New Yorker's not-particularly-funny online satirist Andy Borowitz, but many people, not just your gullible Facebook friends, invariably believe them. Sometimes the official state news agencies of global superpowers believe them.
Most of us - though unfortunately not all of us - are now aware that Onion articles aren't real, but the proliferation of online parody and fake news has created an environment where many people are simply accepting fake news as fact. The bizarrely humorless Daily Currant and the often-pretty-funny military satire site Duffel Blog have been particularly adept at duping the news reading masses.
So why do people believe this stuff? A recently published paper by physicist Delia Mocanu and four colleagues at Northeastern University's Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological and Socio-Technical Systems looks at the phenomenon of "Collective Attention in the Age of (Mis)information," concluding that Facebook users' willingness to believe false information is rooted in mistrust of mainstream media sources.
The researchers examined Italian Facebook activity in the run-up to the election of 2013, looking at how users interacted with "troll" posts - those that present a "caricatural version of political activism and alternative news stories, with the peculiarity to include always false information."
One example was a story reporting that the "Italian Senate voted and accepted (257 in favor and 165 abstentions) a law proposed by Senator Cirenga aimed at funding with 134 billion Euros the policy-makers to find a job in case of defeat in the political competition."