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Viral misinformation and echo chambers: the diffusion of rumors about genetically modified organisms on social media

Xiaohui Wang (Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon, Hong Kong)
Yunya Song (Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon, Hong Kong)

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Article publication date: 24 June 2020

Issue publication date: 26 August 2020

Abstract

Purpose

The spread of rumors on social media has caused increasing concerns about an under-informed or even misinformed public when it comes to scientific issues. However, researchers have rarely investigated their diffusion in non-western contexts. This study aims to systematically examine the content and network structure of rumor-related discussions around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on Chinese social media.

Design/methodology/approach

This study identified 21,837 rumor-related posts of GMOs on Weibo, one of China's most popular social media platforms. An approach combining social network analysis and content analysis was employed to classify user attitudes toward rumors, measure the level of homophily of their attitudes and examine the nature of their interactions.

Findings

Though a certain level of homophily existed in the interaction networks, referring to the observed echo chamber effect, Weibo also served as a public forum for GMO discussions in which cross-cutting ties between communities existed. A considerable amount of interactions emerged between the pro- and anti-GMO camps, and most of them involved providing or requesting information, which could mitigate the likelihood of opinion polarization. Moreover, this study revealed the declining role of traditional opinion leaders and pointed toward the need for alternative strategies for efficient fact-checking.

Originality/value

In general, the findings of this study suggested that microblogging platforms such as Weibo can function as public forums for discussing GMOs that expose users to ideologically cross-cutting viewpoints. This study stands to provide important insights into the viral processes of scientific rumors on social media.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This work is supported in part by the Start-up Grant Tier 2 (RC-SGT2/18-19/COMM/001), the Initiation Grant (RC-FNRA-IG-18-19-04), the Interdisciplinary Research Clusters Matching Scheme (IRCMS/19-20/D04) and the AI and Media Research Lab (SDF17-1013-P01) at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Citation

Wang, X. and Song, Y. (2020), "Viral misinformation and echo chambers: the diffusion of rumors about genetically modified organisms on social media", Internet Research, Vol. 30 No. 5, pp. 1547-1564. https://doi.org/10.1108/INTR-11-2019-0491

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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