CIP’s Kate Starbird examines complementary roles of social and hyper-partisan media

May 27, 2020

In a “data memo” recently published on Medium, Kate Starbird, a University of Washington Center for an Informed Public (CIP) principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering, detailed how social media and hyper-partisan online news media play complementary roles in the ways conspiracy theories spread.

“Crisis events — like global pandemics — are times of high uncertainty and anxiety. Under these conditions, we can be vulnerable to the spread of misinformation,” Starbird wrote. “In recent years, that misinformation spread has often occurred through online platforms. And conspiracy theories are one type of misinformation that spreads online during crisis events.”

Starbird and her colleagues have previously examined some of the information dynamics at play in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. More recently, Starbird found similar patterns in the spreading of false claims and conspiracy theories related to Dr. Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist who has found a home in the anti-vaccine activist community and who had recently published a book with dramatic and defamatory claims about Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“For about ten days at the end of April, we can see heightened activity, likely the result of efforts to get [Mikovits’ Twitter] account off the ground. She gained more than 25,000 followers in just three days (between April 19 and April 22). By May 1, activity around Dr. Mikovits’s name on Twitter was down a bit (<500 per hour), but then her visibility began to take off, eventually reaching more than 6000 tweets per hour on May 7,” Starbird wrote, noting how the surge in activity corresponds to the release of “Plandemic,” a controversial documentary-style film featuring Dr. Mikovits. 

Read Starbird’s full article, “Conspiracy Theorizing in the Time of Covid-19: The Complementary Roles of Social and Hyper-Partisan News Media” on Medium.

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