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Northeastern Professor Delivers Kennedy School Lecture on Social Networks and Fake News

Harvard Kennedy School
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017.

Northeastern University professor David Lazer discussed the impact of the internet on misinformation and the spread of political ideas at a lecture at the Harvard Kennedy School Tuesday.

Lazer serves as a co-director for the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, which sponsored the event along with the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. His research focuses on how knowledge travels through networks like the internet and social media.

Pointing to the circulation of online discount codes throughout Norway, Lazer noted the recent change in the rate at which information spreads. He said that individuals’ ability to search for discount codes online — as opposed to waiting to receive them from others — altered the rate at which the coupon codes spread throughout the population.

“What this meant was that the information that would not have spread, say, before Google will spread if there is a latent demand that is being fulfilled through search,” he said. “As algorithms embed more natural language processing, more sophistication, an increasing amount of human information will be governed by this kind of spreading process as compared to the more traditional models of, let's say, broadcasting.”

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In addition to the new search-driven method of circulation, Lazer highlighted the difference in the structure of media systems in the 21st century. He explained that while individuals in the 20th century relied on advertising and local newspapers, those in the 21st century embraced a global network in which more people rely on fewer news sources.

“I would argue that the creation of a national global market for information will naturally create that concentration of attention,” he said.

Lazer added that while Twitter is one of the most prominent sources of news today, it is particularly vulnerable to the spread of misinformation.

“0.1 percent of the people accounted for roughly 80 percent of all fake news,” he said, citing a study of Twitter data following the 2016 election.

Lazer also criticized the idea that the internet has furthered political polarization. He said that many people incorrectly believe that the internet has a “filter bubble,” so people can only find information that agrees with their beliefs.

“If two people put in the same search, strong Republican, strong Democrat, they're pretty much going to get the same stuff,” he said. “And also, it turns out that exposure to dissonant information will actually sometimes increase political polarization.”

Lazer noted a key element of studying information networks is understanding that people obtain different knowledge in different ways.

“Democracy is, in some sense, what happens in the spaces between us,” Lazer said. “In democracy, we somehow have to accommodate not just differences in opinion, but even differences in our understandings of basic facts about the world.”

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