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Virality and information flow

Virality and information flow
Though there are of course many positive aspects to social media, we must ask ourselves what is it about these online social networks that has enabled them to become such major tools in the dissemination of hateful content and in the spread of incitement and intolerance including antisemitism? In order to address this question, let’s first turn to a phenomenon familiar to all of us today - virality and the role it plays in the creation and sharing of hateful content. Virality is a phenomenon. When we are talking about virality, we’re talking about social information flow - that flow between one person to another. It doesn’t matter which medium it is.
And then it happens very fast, to a lot of people, to very far- reached networks. So the idea of the speed and the reach are very critical when we talk about virality. Most of the information is not viral in the world. Most of the information is regular. It is exposed to a hundred people, two hundred people. When we are talking about virality, we’re talking about by minutes it can get to millions of people, and sometimes it’s very provocative types of content. Since most of the information doesn’t become viral, things that do become viral have to be spectacular, have to be exceptional, have to be remarkable.
And usually those types of content tend to be either types of content that are exceptional and types of content that we don’t tend to see. For example, incitement - incitement like misogyny, like homophobia, like antisemitism, like anti-Muslims. Those types of content usually tend to flow more fast and reach more people than the regular types of information flow. People expect the exceptional content to become viral and when they expect it, they usually share it more. So we tend to see that regular information tends to kind of like flow and then decay, while viral information that is part of incitement harassment and sometimes, I would say, extreme political statements tend to become more viral.
An important stage in both understanding and confronting the spread of hateful content on social media is becoming familiar with the way the information is distributed and flows on these networks. I think as researchers one of the fascinating things that we see in social networks is that the information doesn’t flow on a regular pace. It’s not a democratic process. It’s not an equal process. So what we see is that we see that information is very biased. And when we are talking about biasing the information flows, we’re talking really about five different phenomena. One is the Power Law.
So the idea is that most of the content and most of the attention of users is concentrated in a very few small number of I would say suppliers, I would say platforms and big corporations. They tend to have the attention of most of the people. So that changes the way that … where we kind of focus our attention on. The second bias is homophily - the idea that people tend to come and and communicate with people that are very like-minded and it can happen on different types of levels. For example - ethnicity, religiosity, gender, age etc etc.
And what we see here, for example, in this slide, is we see a situation where the discourse and the discussion in social networks tend to happen in what we call in ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘in camps’. So, for example, in this example we see that the narrative … what you see here is the discussion at the time of the Protective Edge operation - the discussion along the lines of the Israeli narrative is one side people talk about that but they don’t take a talk with the other camp, which is the discussions along the side of the Palestinian narratives. And this goes also to political issues.
For example, we see in elections very consistently that Democratic or liberal views usually talk with themselves, and republicans or more conservative views usually talk with themselves and there is no what we call cross discussion between the camps. Homophily - usually what happens in homophily is that it separates in silos the different discussions. The third thing that we see in social networks is polarization which comes usually with harassment and incitements. So usually my statements and my arguments in life, outside of social networks, we tend to be less polarized, and less I would say with levels of incitement and harassment than in social networks.
And we see it again and again, there are researches that show that people are more polarized on the Internet. And then we see gatekeepers. Gatekeepers is the fourth biasing of information flows. The gatekeepers have the power to manipulate and to take the information flows toward direction that serves their interest.
And now the big question starts with: Who are the gatekeepers and how can we identify them? Gatekeepers are entities. It can be a person. It can be an organization. It can be a government that controls information. So the process of gatekeeping is the control of information. But the gatekeepers are not the usual elites that we used to see before, the elites like for example newspapers, mass media, governments. Today the gatekeepers are you and me. Today the gatekeepers are every user. They can become gatekeepers if they control the information. When I decide to share information, I become a gatekeeper because my decision to share that information is a very proactive decision and that makes basically …
I’m becoming part of the big information flow which currently I don’t see but I can become a gatekeeper. And the fifth thing that is very important to remember is what we call ‘following the herd’. So the tendency in social networks to share information not because you’re interested in the content but because a million people or a billion people shared it. We are following the herd.
And then again the question is: Who is the herd, and who’s basically directing the herd, and what are the interests behind the scene to direct the herd?

Prof. Karin Nahon

What is it about social media that has enabled it to become such a major tool in the dissemination of hateful content and in the spread of incitement and intolerance, including antisemitism?


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  • Beyer, Jessica L., Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • Highfield, Tim, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016).

  • Nahon, Karin and Jeff Hemsley, Going Viral (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013).

  • Nahon, Karine and Jeff Hemsley, “Homophily in the Guise of Cross-Linking: Political Blogs and Content,” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 58, no. 10 (2014), pp. 1294 – 1313.

  • Nahon, Karine, “Where there is Social Media, there is Politics,” in Axel Bruns, Gunn Enli, Eli Skogerbø, Anders Olof Larsson and Christian Christensen, eds., The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 39 – 55.

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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