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The Collaborative Construction and Evolution of Pseudo-knowledge in Online Conversations

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Misinformation has found a new natural habitat in the digital age. Thousands of forums, blogs, and alternative news sources amplify inaccurate information to such a degree that it impacts our collective intelligence. Widespread misinformation is troubling not just because it is wrong, but also because it can persist in the face of attempts to correct it, becoming part of a larger culture of community-based pseudoknowledge (PK). Prior work has focused on the motivations and psychology of those who create and maintain PK but has eschewed inspection of the dynamics of collective PK production itself. In this exploratory case study, we illustrate how the active participation of multiple collaborators adapts PK over time through a process we liken to participatory storytelling. We argue that the Internet provides a uniquely well-suited environment for evolving PK that is " more fit " in that it is more engaging, easier to defend, and possibly easier to spread.
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The Collaborative Construction and Evolution of Pseudo-
knowledge in Online Conversations
Joshua Introne*, Luca Iandoli, Julia DeCook*, Irem Gokce Yildirim*, Shaima Elzeini*
*Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ
{jintrone, jdecook, yildiri4, elzeinis}@msu.edu, liandoli@stevens.edu
ABSTRACT
Misinformation has found a new natural habitat in the digital
age. Thousands of forums, blogs, and alternative news sources
amplify inaccurate information to such a degree that it impacts
our collective intelligence. Widespread misinformation is
troubling, not just because it is wrong, but also because it can
persist in the face of attempts to correct it, and thus becomes
part of a larger culture of community-based pseudoknowledge
(PK). Prior work has focused on the motivations and psychology
of those who create and maintain PK but has neglected
inspection of the dynamics of collective PK production itself. In
this exploratory case study, we illustrate how the active
participation of multiple collaborators adapts PK over time
through a process we liken to participatory storytelling. We
argue that the Internet provides a uniquely well-suited
environment for evolving PK that is “more fit”, in that it is more
engaging, easier to defend, and possibly easier to spread.
CCS Concepts
Applied computing Law, social and behavioral
sciences Anthropology Human-centered
computing Collaborative and social
computing Empirical studies in collaborative and social
computing
Keywords
Misinformation, conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, narrative,
knowledge construction. argumentation, collective intelligence,
diffusion of information, online conversations
1. INTRODUCTION
In 2013, the World Economic Forum declared massive digital
misinformation to be one of the greatest threats to modern
society and positioned it at the center of numerous geopolitical
risks including terrorism, cyber attacks, and the failure of global
governance [23]. The report assigns blame to our modern
“hyper-connectedness” and the ease and speed with which
information online spreads. As a result, an erroneous ideafor
instance, the false connection between the MMR vaccine and
autismcan quickly spread across populations before a
correction can be made.
Misinformation can result from error, misunderstandings, or
deliberate campaigns to mislead or obfuscate1, but its genesis
only part of the problem. An equally difficult challenge is that
misinformation often persists despite efforts to correct it. In fact,
corrective action can cause misinformation to become more
firmly entrenched [4]. People often seem motivated to embrace
misinformation, to pass it along, and to fight to propagate it.
Together, they engage in what has been called collective
motivated cognition[30], whereby individuals work together to
filter information in order to confirm and preserve a faulty
theory because of motivations that are external to the theory
itself [26, 33].
In this article, we focus on the object of such motivated
cognition, which we refer to with the umbrella term “pseudo-
knowledge” (PK). Our goal is to elucidate the mechanisms and
social dynamics that enable it to persist and evolve over long
periods of time. Researchers have suggested that the Internet
accelerates the growth of PK in several ways: first, by
democratizing information production, as the Internet makes it
possible for anyone to spread misinformation to large audiences
[5, 34]; second, once disseminated, insular communities of
shared interests can incorporate misinformation into PK [58]. In
an analysis of urban legends online, Fernback [18] suggests that
large-scale, online communication affords the emergence of
primarily oral cultures. In such environments, misinformation is
not merely passed on, but also becomes part of an actively
maintained online culture [5], and these cultures defend
themselves against external threats.
There has been little analysis of what happens to PK once it is
adopted online. Historical analyses have shown that PK is often
constructed out of multiple lines of thought and can change over
time [13, 19]. Given the Internet’s enormous capacity for
generating subcultures [28, 36, 40], it seems reasonable to
expect it might also accelerate or otherwise influence how PK
evolves.
With this analysis, we seek to shed light on how the Internet
influences the evolution of PK. Specifically, we approach the
evolution of PK as a type of knowledge construction, and pose
the following question: by what criteria do people decide to
incorporate or exclude contributions to a body of PK? To answer
this question, we examine one popular online discussion about
the existence of alien “stargates” on Earth, spanning roughly ten
years and 6,800 posts, and involving 1,025 contributors. We
focus on the interplay of narrative and argumentation in the
conversation, and examine the resultant changes in PK.
Through our analysis, we find a diverse population of users that
engage in an activity reminiscent of participatory storytelling. In
this environment, would-be debunkers do no real damage to an
1 Deliberately misleading misinformation is often called disinformation,
reflecting the speaker’s intent to deceive.
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http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1145/3097286.3097297
evolving pseudotheory, but they do help its supporters identify
and eliminate its less tenable components. At the same time, a
continuous stream of contributors enriches the story, adding
evidence and extending it in new ways. Based on our
observations, we propose that modifications and additions to a
body of PK are chosen primarily to enhance its ability to survive
and thrive. Moreover, the Internet provides an environment
ideally suited to creating established PK ecosystems that are
highly engaging and easy to defend.
In the following, we review literature to distinguish between PK
and other forms of knowledge, and then discuss knowledge
production more generally. We outline our analytical approach,
and describe the target of our analysis in general terms. In our
analysis we first note general patterns, and then provide detail
on several representative events that occur throughout the
conversation. Finally, we conclude with a broad discussion
about the implications of our work, and how it can address the
growth of PK on the Internet.
2. REVIEW
Conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and pseudo-historyeach
of which is a different kind of PKare ways of explaining
complex external events and circumstances in the world. Like
scientific theories or media portrayals of world events, these
theories connect disparate events into a coherent pattern. Unlike
scientific theories, the coherence of PK may be judged more
rigorously against internal beliefs rather than externally
established facts [17, 61]. Research suggests that different forms
of PK are connected and are in fact distinct from conventional
ways of knowing [e.g 35], but there is currently no clear
demarcation between the two [43]. How we distinguish PK from
conventional knowledge is important, because it may motivate
different approaches to investigating and addressing it.
Some have sought to highlight the epistemic weaknesses of PK.
Such efforts are borne of rationalism and are similar in spirit to
Karl Popper’s proposition that falsifiability should serve as the
litmus test of actual science [44]. In this vein, Lewandowksy
[35] highlights the circular logic of conspiracy theories, Fritze
[19] documents the willful rejection of concrete evidence
underlying several pseudoscientific theories, and Schermer and
Grobman [48] focus on the rejection of convergent evidence.
Yet, conventional knowledge can suffer from these same
problems, and questions about reproducibility warrant some
skepticism about published research [14]. Moreover, dissent is a
critical tool for breaking the logjam of an incorrect consensus
paradigm, and so alternative theories should not be rejected
simply because they run counter to the mainstream.
Another important perspective on PK is that its adoption is
heavily influenced by external factors that include emotions,
social psychology, and ulterior motives. For example,
conspiracy theories proliferate in the face of distressing social
events or situations [10, 22, 30], and many researchers have
argued that people generate PK to make an inexplicable world
comprehensible [1, 2, 12, 39, 42]. These factors may be
exacerbated by the human tendency to identify illusory patterns
in the world when they feel a lack of control [59]. Other studies
have also demonstrated that conspiracy theories help people
come to terms with their own powerlessness [15, 46], and these
reactions can be amplified by the emergence of social norms and
in-group favoritism [10, 30, 47].
However, as with epistemological critiques, motivated reasoning
is present across a range of institutions that are devoted to
knowledge production, and consumers of knowledge who
happen to be aligned with conventional truths are also affected
[21, 27]. Thus, from both epistemological and motivational
perspectives, the line between PK and conventional knowledge
is a matter of degree. If knowledge lies too far beyond epistemic
norms and there is reason to suspect the motivations of its
adherents, it is often regarded as PK.
Within the body of existing research, there have -as yet- been no
attempts to analyze how the dynamic interaction of many
individuals interact with PK’s structure and, and we believe this
may be a fruitful avenue for developing descriptive criteria that
demarcate PK from other forms of knowledge. For example,
according to Kuhn [32], the growth of scientific knowledge
takes place through the emergence of new theories challenging
an existing dominant paradigm. The conflict between incumbent
and antagonist paradigms may lead to a scientific revolution
when the new theory is recognized to solve anomalies, explain
more phenomena, or provide simpler explanations by
maximizing explanatory coherence [55].
The processes that drive these broader dynamics can be divided
into two phases [9, 41]. The first is the creation of new
hypotheses, and the second, following Karl Popper’s proposition
[44], is validating the new theory via application of the scientific
method. The scientific method does not suggest a rigorous and
systematic approach to guide the creation of new hypotheses, as
how hypothesis generation occurs is not well-studied. However,
it is clear argumentation and testing play a critical role in culling
bad theory from the body of scientific knowledge.
Bruner [9] suggests that the division between hypothesis
generation and testing corresponds to two fundamental modes of
human thought: narrative and argumentative reasoning.
According to his view, narrative thinking and argumentation are
irreducible to one to another since they differ primarily in their
fundamental objective: the objective of a storyteller is to
convince her readers that a certain chain of events and its
resolution sound plausible, whereas argumentation is aimed at
verifying if an inference is true or false.
Narratives, composed of causal relations that explain or predict
events, play a central role in how people perceive reality and
make decisions [8, 31, 45]. As with scientific knowledge, people
employ argumentation to assess the plausibility of stories.
However, despite our aspirations to use arguments to pursue the
truth, research suggests that argumentation is more commonly
applied in pursuit of interpersonal goals.
For example, Sperber and Mercier [38] offer an ample review of
empirical studies supporting this claim. These studies show that
when people are put in argumentative contexts in which they are
motivated to defend or attack a claim, they are far better able to
generate good arguments than when they are asked to reason
about an explanatory theory [31]. Sperber and Mercier [38]
therefore suggest that the objective of skilled arguers is not to
seek the truth but to produce arguments supporting their views.
If argumentation is a “goal directed social practice embedded in
different types of dialogues” [29], rather than a tool used to
construct and validate explanatory theories, what criteria are
used to establish the plausibility of an explanatory narrative in
the first place? Research in cognitive psychology suggests that
some structural features (such as the organization of causal
relationships and the episodic structure in narrative) play
important roles both for interpretation and remembrance [25, 37,
51, 52]. In general however, there have been relatively few
attempts to establish a canonical set of criteria [8].
Drawing on these ideas, our central aim is to begin identifying
the rules and criteria that guide the evolution of PK. We focus
on argumentation and narrative reasoning that occur in an
extended conversation about a body of PK, and draw examples
from three types of conversational events in the forum: the
initial presentation of PK online; the impact of a sustained attack
on an underlying body of PK; and the evolution of a body of PK.
We find that argumentative and narrative reasoning are both
commonplace in the conversation we examine, and that PK
evolves rapidly. This analysis leads us to a tentative conclusion
regarding our central aim: unlike scientific knowledge and
explanatory narratives, which may serve an external purpose,
PK grows in order to propagate itself.
In the following sections we first introduce our methodology,
and then present our findings.
3. METHODOLOGY
With this paper, our aim was to reveal some of the mechanisms
and dynamics that enable PK to persist online. To that end, we
sought a long-standing forum discussion in an established
community of individuals who were focused on maintaining PK.
We sought to avoid highly politicized and ideological
conversations, because we were concerned that the presence of
strong external motivations might obscure other factors
underlying successful PK. Finally, for pragmatic and ethical
reasons, we sought a forum with terms of service that would
allow analysis, was publicly visible without an account login,
and did not reveal identifying information about its users.
Searching for the keywords “conspiracy forum” yields more
than 16 million resources, and after an investigation of these, we
selected a site called “AboveTopSecret. The site’s content
indicates that it hosts discussions about a range of alternative
topics such as conspiracies, UFOs, paranormal, secret societies,
political scandals, new world order, terrorism.”2 From the many
forums hosted on the retrieved site, we identified the discussion
with the most replies in the “Aliens and UFOs” forum category.
The forum discussion [50] began in 2006 and was last active (at
time of writing) in August of 2016. The forum includes 6,878
posts contributed by 1,025 unique users, consisting of roughly
1.3 million words (approximately 2,600 single-spaced pages).
We used several different approaches to analyze the forum,
which are outlined as follows:
Data Analysis: We scraped the entire contents of the forum to
perform several types of descriptive data analysis, including an
analysis of poster cohortsand topic shifts (described below).
We also developed a visualization to help convey the results of
this analysis. We used this analysis to identify both exceptional
and repetitive features in the conversation, and used this to guide
our deeper, qualitative investigations.
Content Analysis: We developed and applied a content analysis
strategy, drawing upon Glaser’s [20] constant comparative
technique (described more fully below). We coded 300
randomly selected posts to establish inter-coder reliability, and
coded additional passages to illustrate the dynamics of the
2 http://www.abovetopsecret.com/about_abovetopsecret.php We note
that the lead author’s Institutional Review Board did not consider this
to be human subjects research, and the terms of service for
AboveTopSecret.com indicate that posts are copyright by a Creative
Commons 3.0 License, which requires attribution that includes a link
to the thread (provided in the bibliography) and the use of actual
poster pseudonyms (provided alongside quotes).
conversation during specific episodes.
Narrative Analysis: Finally, we selected specific instances of
what we identify as “narration,” and applied Stein and Glenn’s
[52] story grammar to highlight changes in the PK being
discussed. This process is also described more fully below.
In the following we offer a high-level description of the
conversation and introduce some of its dynamics. We then dive
more deeply into our codebook, using examples for clarification.
Finally, we highlight some specific instances of interaction that
illustrate important moments of narrative development.
4. RESULTS
By way of introduction, the Star Gate Theory (henceforth, SGT)
is a particular version of an “Ancient Aliens” theory developed
by the thread initiator, who goes by the username “Undo.” At
the time the forum begins in March of 2006, Undo has written a
several freely available e-books on the subject, and is working
on a third. She initiates the thread to share the SGT, and
proceeds to present the theory for other forum members.
Undo begins with two basic assumptions: first, that mainstream
historians have mistakenly classified religious writings as
mythical (in particular, the Book of Genesis), while in fact they
were historical accounts of an alien visitation; and second, that
the timeline of ancient history established by mainstream
historians is incorrect. She proceeds to identify parallels
between religious texts and other ancient myths to produce a
theory about events concerning the interaction between humans
and the alien visitors (the Annunaki, whom she contends were
the fallen angels described in Genesis). A central component of
her story is that the Annunaki first arrived on Earth via one of
several “stargates,” which are interplanetary / inter-dimensional
portals that still exist on Earth. Undo believes that the stargates’
locations are being kept secret by various world governments,
but her theory focuses on the historical evidence of the stargates’
existence. The timeline of her story incorporates and provides
alternate explanations for the Genesis Flood and fall of the
Tower of Babel, which are both stories in Abrahamic religions.
Undo is well informed about her topic, is responsive to and
patient with other forum members, and her theory is met with
both enthusiasm and disdain. In the following, we first provide
an overview of the posting dynamics in the forum, followed by a
deeper discussion of the processes underlying these dynamics.
4.1 Diverse Population, Diverse Information
To understand the overall dynamics of the conversation, we
developed a visualization (that compares posting activity with
poster and topic variation over time. In the figure, posts were
binned into month long intervals, and the time window advanced
one week at a time over the dataset. Data along the y-axis is
normalized and scaled by the square root. Data above the x-axis
reflects the number of posters, and colour variation indicates
changes in the groups of people actively posting in a given
window. Data below the x-axis reflects the number of words
written, and colour variation indicates changes in the topic of the
discussion.
More specifically, colours for both groups of active posters and
topics were derived following a procedure called Latent
Semantic Analysis (LSA [16]), which has been used to identify
topics in text. In the case of textual data (below the axis), the
application of LSA followed typical procedures, using the set of
posts in a time-window as a document, and individual words
(stemmed and with stop-words removed) as terms. In the case of
groups of posters, individual poster handles were used as
terms.LSA produces a vector-space model of the data, and the
first three dimensions of the vector space were mapped to red,
blue, and green colour components. To obtain a colour assigned
to a given window, we calculate the average of the colours of all
of the words / posters in that window, weighted by the relative
frequency of a word / poster in a window.
Figure 1 yields several interesting observations. As important
context for these, we note that posting rates among posters in the
forum are distributed as a long tail (typical in social media [24])
with Undo (mapped to the light green colour above the x-axis in
Figure 1) posting roughly a third of all posts, and the top five
most active posters accounting for just over half of all posts.
Nonetheless, Figure 1 demonstrates that there is a great deal of
variation in the mix of people who are posting at any given time.
The striations in colour indicate that the variation in active
posting groups is not smooth, but proceeds as a succession of
distinct groups. Finally, changes in active posting group tend to
correlate strongly with shifts in topic, though similar groups do
not necessarily talk about similar topics
In summary, a large and varying population of users brings
different topics to the ongoing conversation about Undo’s
theory. Whether and how this diverse information is used in the
service of PK construction requires a richer analysis, which we
present in the following sections.
4.2 The Processes of PK Construction
We sought to identify regular patterns of interaction to
understand how this diverse population of interlocutors engaged
in PK construction. Other types of discourse analytic coding
procedures have been developed to highlight different aspects of
knowledge construction [57, 60], but these approaches do not
consider the narrative construction process we are interested in,
nor do they scale to large datasets. Thus, we developed our own
content analysis method, based on insights drawn from literature
covered in our review, above.
To develop our taxonomy of codes, we followed procedures
commonly used for developing grounded theory [53]. We began
coding using narrative construction and argumentation (as
described by Bruner [6]) as sensitizing concepts. Because
individual posts might contain multiple kinds of knowledge
construction activity, no effort was made to produce mutually
exclusive codes. Initially, one author worked through a large
number of posts to develop an initial taxonomy, and then three
of the other authors jointly worked through the data in batches
of fifty to hundred posts at time, following Glaser’s (1963)
constant comparative technique, until a point of saturation was
reached (roughly 500 posts). After jointly recoding the initial
posts using the final taxonomy, two of the coders involved in the
effort worked through 300 posts sampled randomly across the
dataset, and we used Cohen’s Kappa statistic to assess inter-
coder reliability. We obtained values of .9 or greater in all but
two of the developed categories (exact results reported below).
Kappa values greater than .6 indicate substantial agreement, and
values greater than .9 are nearly perfect.
Our final coding scheme includes fourteen codes, which may be
loosely grouped into four main categories. In the following,
kappa is reported for each code parenthetically:
Argumentative: Evidence (.97), Defense of PK (1), Attack(.99),
Support (.98), Troll (.67)
Narrative: Narrate (1), Stitch (1), Mutate (.96)
Contextual: Other PK (1), Current Events (1), Explain (.97)
Discursive: Cheer (.59), Conversation Management (.91),
Request Elaboration / Evidence (.90)
One type of information that was not explicitly coded but is
nonetheless important to define was the central piece of PK
under discussion at any given point in the conversation, which
we refer to as the story. For much of the discussion, the main
story was Undo’s SGT. However, the story did shift at points,
focusing at different times on stargate technology, the location
of stargates, the existence of a “reptilian” race that co-exists
with humans, and other topics.
In the following sub-sections, we provide detailed definitions
and examples of a subset of codes. Due to limitations length,
and because they are less relevant to the aim of this manuscript,
we omit discussion of context and discursive codes.
4.2.1 Argumentative Codes
Evidence: Any inclusion or reference to specific information
drawn from either working knowledge or some external source,
presented for consideration in relation to a piece of PK.
Religious texts and ancient myths (e.g., the Christian Bible, the
Epic of Gilgamesh), hieroglyphics, and pictures of ancient
artifacts were the most common forms of evidence. Television
shows, personal anecdotes, satellite imagery (e.g., from Google
Maps), and scientific publications were also commonly used.
Other established PK (e.g., a pre-existing theory about alien
abductions) was considered evidence only if it was used to
support / debunk / modify the active story.
Defense of PK (DOPK): An effort to defend the story or argue
for or against a claim by questioning basic, seemingly
reasonable assumptions, casting doubt on other person’s
motives, or disparaging their unwillingness to consider
alternatives.
Although such posts were not frequent, they were distinctive and
were offered as a foundational argument for reasoning about a
story. For example:
Figure 1. Forum activity over time. All data is binned monthly, sliding by one week at a time. Data above the x-axis reflects
the number of unique posters in a window; data below the x-axis reflects the number of words written. Colours above the x-
axis reflect variation in the identity of posters; colours below the x-axis reflect variation in the topic of discussion.
posterswords
Jan2006 Jan2008 Jan2010 Jan2012 Jan2014 Jan2016
color indicates cohort variation
color indicate topic variation
Some myths are not myths at all. And some myths are
purely myth. But when German Higher Criticism exploded
onto the scene, all ancient history was labeled myth. Bar
none. Every country on the planet, every people, have
histories. They are considered lies, fables and myths at the
university level, not because they have evidence they were
lies, fables and myths, but because they don't believe in the
subject matter. You can't dissect a text correctly if you have
no respect for it. Your view and translation will always be
slanted to your own paradigm.Undo
Support / Attack: Any argument addressed to another poster
that applies a rationale or uses evidence to support / attack the
story or critical evidence for the story.
Supporting / attacking arguments were coded separately.
Although we observed reasoning that might be considered
argumentation within individual posts (in a formal sense [56]),
we only coded arguments that were addressed to another poster.
Simple agreement / disagreement was not considered to be
argumentation.
Troll: An attack on the story or story’s posters that involves
ridicule and does not present any cogent arguments.
Such attacks were rare, and violate the forum’s terms of service,
and could result in a poster’s account being suspended.
4.2.2 Narrative Codes
Narrate: Any presentation of, reflection upon, or elaboration of
a portion of the content of an established story.
Posters developed stories through a process of iterative retelling
and innovation. Some aspects of the story stabilized over time
(at least temporarily), and were re-told in response to questions,
or in the process of considering new evidence or potential
modifications. When a poster retold a stable portion of a story,
we coded this as narration.
We used Stein and Glenn’s story grammar [52] and Chatman’s
taxonomy of story content [11], to help distinguish story content
from other information. For example, in the following passage
Undo relates the consequences of the Annunaki’s (the “race” of
aliens in the SGT) interference on earth, setting the stage for a
divine intervention:
One of the reasons is that everything was polluted. the earth
was polluted, the genome of the animals, polluted. hybrids
of all kinds were rampant and apparently some of the
combinations were very bad.—Undo
Stitch: An effort to bring a new piece of evidence (or possibly
some current event, circumstance, or other PK) into alignment
with the story.
Stitching was one of the most common activities observed in the
forum, and involved identifying some type of evidence and
comparing it with an established story. To qualify as stitching, a
poster must establish a link between some evidence and a
specific story element. The outcome of stitching could be a
modification or elaboration of the story, or a rejection of the
evidence. For example, in the following post Justyc asks Undo
to help connect evidence of a change in writing to Enki and the
Tower of Babel myth (both part of the SGT):
Interesting thread undo. Thank you i was wondering if you
had any ideas or theories about what it was that happened
somewhere around 3000 bc that made writing suddenly take
a 90 degree turn. up until then, it would have been read from
top to bottom but then it was changed from left to right. can
this be somehow connected to the nam-shub of enki, who
was said to have 'changed the speech'?justyc
Mutate: Any proposed or observed modification to the episodic
structure of the story.
We distinguish mutation from simple elaboration by requiring
that the mutation have some significant impact on the overall
episodic structure of the story, as defined by Stein and Glenn
[52]. Thus, while stitching might lead to an elaboration of
some aspect of the story, mutationonly occurred when the
change produced some structural modification or addition to the
story.
In the following example, Undo attempts to work out a part of
the story about what happened to Nimrod (a descendant of
Noah):
the real big hint is the same reference as the epic of
gilgamesh gate guards, the scorpion men (which doesn't
mean i think they are scorpions, but i do beileve they have
tails on them, rather than on their flying contrivances). for
anyone who has read the entire thread, remember the image
of the vase from abydos? the tall beings have tails. my first
thought was that these were the forerunners of the pharaohs,
who were partially reptilian, such as nimrod's entourage, but
it's difficult to say. i keep vacilliating between the idea that
the hybridization/modifications made to nimrod were either
Argumentative
Narrative
Episode 2.1
Indelkoffer attackInitial presentation
Indelkoffer
undo other posters
KEY zorgon
3 month hiatus
Abduction episode Mars episode
Figure 2. Visualization of the dynamics of argument and narrative construction in the forum; note that the x-axis before and after
the hiatus is scaled differently.
machine or reptilian (perhaps a mixture of the two,
explaining why he claims he's 2/3rds "god", et.al, 1 part
human and ALSO 1 part machine/1 part reptilian).Undo
The implications of this mutation could have significant
consequences for how the Annunaki created alien-human
hybrids.
In some cases, evolution occurred offline, and could only be
identified by comparing a story from one point to the next. More
peripheral posters could also propose mutations, although Undo
ultimately served as the gatekeeper for the story. These cases are
examined more closely in the following section.
4.3 The Evolution of PK
To understand how the process of mutation changed the story,
we applied Stein and Glenn’s [52] story grammar to identify the
structural components of the story. The story grammar spans a
sequence of 14 production rules, and captures narrative as a
composition of one of more episodes that can be chained
together in various ways. Each episode captures the intentional
actions of the main character(s) in response to some kind event,
and the effects of these actions. As described by Stein and Glenn
[52], some elements may be omitted in telling a story, but an
adult listener will infer them. In practice, we observed that
certain elements (such as the “Internal Plan” element) were
uniformly omitted, and introduced a compressed format for
episodes, which is useful for visualization (see Figure 3).
To transform the conversation into a structured representation of
the story, we adhered to the following strategy:
1. Code posts to identify those containing narration and /
or mutation;
2. Extract just those pieces of text in these posts related
to story content;
3. Divide text into propositions (following Stein and
Glenn [52]);
4. Rearrange propositions to follow the sequence of
events in the underlying story;
5. Apply Stein and Glenn’s story grammar to generate
story episodes [52].
The first two authors worked independently on steps (2-5), and
then resolved differences in consultation with the other co-
authors. In general, there were few substantive differences in the
coding.
All of the examples selected for analysis were drawn from the
first 500 posts coded while developing our coding methodology.
In the following, we describe the initial story, and then present
selected episodes that illustrate mutations that occurred in
response to a sustained attack and the introduction of new
knowledge.
4.3.1 The birth of the story
Figure 2 presents the results of applying our coding scheme to
the first 459 posts. 108 unique posters appear in this time
window, and Undo posts 189 times. During the initial
presentation of the story (indicated in the figure), Undo devotes
many posts to narrating the story and providing evidence to back
her theory up. She defends the story against a variety of attacks,
occasionally deploying a “defense of PK argument. Other
posters propose mutations and suggest new evidence that might
be stitched to the story, but Undo rarely accepts these additions.
Figure 3 provides a visualization of a portion of the story
(several episodes are omitted due to limitation of space). The
story ultimately provides support for Undo’s claim that the
current condition of the world (pollution, genetic modification, a
large population of Nephilim) is a sign that the apocalypse is
near. In developing this representation, it was necessary to infer
several story elements (noted in the figure), but all other
elements were tied directly to text generated by undo. Thus, the
story first appears as a largely complete and coherent narrative.
4.3.2 Response to an attack
At the very end of the initial presentation, Undo adds a sub-
episode (Episode 2.1), explaining that the Nephilim
(descendants of the Aliens hybridized with Humans) maintain
the Annunaki bloodline through the practice of droit du seigneur
(otherwise known as Ius primae noctis in the Feudal system,
which is the right of the lord to claim the first night of a newly
wed woman). As evidence for this, Undo cites a portion of the
Epic of Gilgamesh, and provides pictures of elongated skulls
from various cultures as evidence of widespread alien-human
hybridization. Several posters respond negatively to these
assertions.
One poster, named Indellkoffer, is familiar with the ancient texts
Figure 3. Visualization of the story constructed during the conversation.
Undo references and indicates that she has degrees in ancient
history and literature. She attacks both the “elongated head”
evidence and the practice of droit du seigneur among ancient
civilizations. These attacks are persistent, verbose
(approximately 5,600 words over the course of 11 posts), and
appeared to be grounded in conventional historical theory.
Several posters offer supportive comments during this period,
but do not specifically defend the SGT from Indellkoffer’s
attack. However, one poster directly addresses the argument,
offering advice that could be interpreted as a general strategy for
managing PK in the face of a hostile attack:
Indellkoffer has given some very good skepticism in this,
and it would seem that the theory that the Annunaki (either
directly, or through the greatly influenced Osiris/et al guy)
impregnated the wives-to-be before the husbands could get
there, is going out of our view of plausibility. It doesn't
demerit your general theory at all, it just crosses a few things
out. It could come back, given some new evidence - but
don't expect it to. Clinging to it and holding to something
that was only tenuously supposed in the beginning is a good
mixture for making yourself look less knowledgeable than
you are. You need to adapt to this situation, take it in stride,
stop focusing on the children/firstborns, and spend more
time with the folks in this thread and the elongated heads
issue. If that begins to cave, move back to the general stuff
Viendin.
Following the interaction with Indellkoffer, the conversation
remains active until the end of March, after which there is a
three month hiatus. When the conversation begins again, undo
summarizes her story in a single post and (perhaps following
Viendin’s advice) replaces Episode 2.1 (see Figure 3) to
incorporate alien abduction rather than droit du seigneur as the
means for maintaining the Annunaki bloodline:
Yet, according to the sumerian texts, the Igigi were the
Greater gods and didn't come to the earth, but remained up
in the sky, circumnavigating the globe. So how is it they
"Deflowered" anyone while being uninvolved in the
activities of the humans on the planet? Abduction, my
friends, abduction. And they are still at it today.Undo
The preceding example illustrates how debunking can overcome
components of PK, but also that a devoted maintainer can
salvage a story by changing it in ways that preserve its overall
structure. Below, we examine how the story changes when it is
not under threat.
4.3.3 Diversity breeds innovation
As the conversation progressed, other users proposed numerous
modifications to the story. Whether these were incorporated into
a story was ultimately determined by Undo’s acceptance of the
mutation as a reasonable addition.
An example of this occurred following the hiatus between
March and July. At the beginning of July, a previously unseen
poster named Zorgon began posting in the forum, responding to
earlier posts and offering arguments in support of Undo’s story
(see Figure 2). It is notable that Zorgon has an active presence
on another site (which he links to several times), which curates
PK about a range of topics. One of the topics that Zorgon is
responsible for maintaining on that site focuses on PK about
Mars.
Undo eventually returns to the forum to reply to Zorgon, and
resumes narrating the story. Compared to the first weeks of the
conversation, the forum becomes far more hospitable to Undo
during this period; there are fewer attacks, and other posters
jump in to defend her story. Activity becomes focused on
stitching new evidence to the story, and suggesting mutations. In
most of these cases, posters frame their offerings as questions
for Undo. Undo is highly responsive, and engages other posters
in considering these contributions, but only rarely accepts them
as part of the story or its accumulated body of supporting
evidence.
One mutation she ultimately accepts is a suggestion by Zorgon
that a stargate was used to drain water from Mars to flood the
Earth. The contribution unfolds over a series of posts,
culminating in the following exchange (noted in Figure 2):
…Now you remember our talk about the water? Well there
was TONS of water on Mars... NASA has proof and so do I
Haven't found the stargate up there yet but thats gonna be
tough!.... So if there was water and its now gone...[Nasa's
current puzzle:where did it go] and if you take that stargate
and open one end on Earth... the other at the bottom of the
Martian Sea... Voila instant drain.... wipe out Mars by
sucking up the water... flood the Earth with all that extra
water... short circuit the gate and Kaboom! Two worlds
wrecked in a short time...zorgon
…It wouldn't surprise me at all about the Mars flood idea,
because, from what I can tell, Enki is accused of creating the
flood in at least one instance. It fits with my theory that Ra
was modelled after Enki and his E.ABZU and that the
appearance of Ra in the Legend of Ra and Hathor is in fact,
a memory and metaphorical reference (however obscure) to
Enki's E.ABZU… Also in the Legend of Ra and Hathor,
Ra's "Eye" as a weapon, creates a flood of "red blood,"
which fits with the idea that Mars might be involved
somehow (something I was avoiding without sufficient
textual evidence, but which fits the pieces of scattered
information if you connect the dots)Undo
By querying our database for the words “Mars” and “flood”
following the initial acceptance of this contribution, we
identified twenty-five additional posts discussing this part of the
story, with the most recent occurring in June of 2014 (nearly
eight years after its initial presentation). We analyzed these posts
to develop the “Mars episode” shown in Figure 3.
Unlike other episodes in Figure 3, the Mars episode is never
tightly integrated into the story because its initiating event is
never specified and could not be inferred. We also note that in
the posts we identified that refer to the episode, Undo often
gives credit to Zorgon, and always refers to the episode as a
likely theory:
My theory (which Zorgon, btw, originally suggested as
regards Mars and a gate), was that the big gate in the persian
gulf (and potentially others in big bodies of water on earth)
was siphoning water from another body of water, off planet,
in particular Mars. because in the legend of the destruction
of mankind, the water is said to be "red", which could've
been a reference to water from mars…--Undo
Because the Mars episode is not well integrated in the story, we
propose that Undo’s decision to include it may be motivated by
another concern: her acceptance of the episode may be a way of
rewarding Zorgon for his contributions and support, providing
him with a sense of ownership over the story and sanctioned role
in its maintenance. It also serves to invite and generate further
discussion about the existence of alien civilizations on Mars and
other planets, which are fertile ground for pseudoscience and
other conspiracy theories. We reflect further on these
observations below.
5. DISCUSSION
In our analysis, online pseudo-knowledge is not static;
participants who become engaged in a conversation about PK
work together to debate, enrich, and adapt an underlying story
over time. There is a central author and curator, but a diverse
and continuous stream of participants who visit the forum to
engage with the story in some manner.
These incoming posters bring new knowledge and ideas to the
conversation, and their contributions are met with a range of
responses. Some contributions are overtly hostile to the story,
and these are rejected with argumentation that is occasionally
supported by a more general defense of PK. When particularly
persistent attacks breach these defenses, the story may be
changed to defuse the attack, eliminating the possibility of
similar attacks in the future.
However, most contributions are not hostile, and the curators of
the story usually meet these with serious consideration.
Although Undo rarely allows these incoming contributions to
become part of the story, she never ridicules or dismisses other
ideas out of hand, thus providing contributors with an
opportunity to participate in story making. Contributions that are
accepted can enrich the story in different ways. New information
that is successfully stitched to the story becomes part of the
growing body of convergent evidence that supports the story
itself. Contributions that change the story provide potential
contributors with new opportunities for interaction around topics
that interest them.
In observing the evolution of this body of knowledge, it is
natural to ask for what purpose?” For scientific knowledge,
there are ready answers to this questionto ascertain the truth,
to improve the human condition. To achieve these aims, the
scientific method yokes the abductive process of hypothesis
generation to the evaluative processes of rational argumentation
and testing, in a deliberate attempt to invalidate hypotheses,
such that only the repeatable and predictive remain. Yet, we
observe here that argumentation is more often used to reject new
evidence, rather than invalidate the story. Thus, we must
conclude that the criteria against which the evolving story is
judgedits fitness function, to borrow from evolutionary
scienceprioritizes something other than its rational basis.
What then can we say about the criteria against which PK is
judged?
Bruner’s analysis of narrative offers some insight. Bruner [8]
identified ten aspects of narrative that, he argued, play an
important role in the appeal of any given story. Although it is
beyond our scope to evaluate each of these aspects here, the
category of narrative accrualdeserves special consideration.
Narrative accrual refers to the process through which: “we
cobble stories together to make a whole of some sort” [8]. In
time, such accruals “create something variously called a
‘culture’ or a ‘history’ or, more loosely, a ‘tradition’ [8]. It is
against this backdrop that new stories are judged.
This process of narrative accrual is quite clear in the case of the
SGT. Across the conversation, the community accumulates
thousands of pointers to supporting evidenceand creates a
constellation of interconnected story components that become
weighty enough to form a plausible reality. By examining
decisions that are made regarding which elements accrue, and
which do not, we can identify several criteria that may govern
this process.
First, to survive in an occasionally hostile environment, any
accrual must be defensible under targeted attack. A generic
defense of PK may suffice to repel ridicule or less persistent
attackers, but focused, evidence-driven criticism, requires an
equally focused counter-argument. In the absence of such a
defense, an existing portion of accrued narrative may be
removed.
Second, some additions may be allowed for social reasons,
functioning to increase the human resources allocated to support
an evolving story. A proven compatriot might be allowed to
introduce a story component even if it is only loosely compatible
with an existing body of narrative to provide that individual with
a sense of ownership. These observations highlight the social
processes undergirding the construction and maintenance of PK,
and it will be important in future work to consider our data from
the perspective of established sociological theory [3].
Finally, we have encountered other instances of addition and
rejection that suggest that other, context-sensitive selection
criteria are employed. For instance, several other bodies of PK
weave narratives that are similar to, but incompatible with
Undo’s SGT [e.g. 49]. Undo is careful to distance her story from
these other narratives, which are frequently raised by other
posters. We also identified numerous instances in which the
SGT is used to explain various current events (e.g., the war in
Iraq, the international response to piracy in the Gulf of Aden).
These become new avenues for drawing supporting evidence to
the story, which may help strengthen the arguments that are
presented. A more complete analysis of these interactions is
another important avenue for future work, because they can help
illustrate how PK operates beyond the insular context of a single
forum.
Returning now to the question of for what purpose,” we
propose that PK exists in order to propagate itself. This
perspective contrasts with the more common point of view
highlighting the agency and motivations of individuals.
Individual motivations clearly play a critical role, and we do not
claim that PK truly has agency. But individual motivations may
vary widely, whereas storytelling is an ancient and fundamental
human activity [7, 8, 45]. By focusing upon the survival
mechanisms of PK as a collective product, we may uncover
strategies for dealing with it that are obscured by a
preoccupation with individual motivations.
In an era where misinformation threatens to destabilize our
democratic machinery, this perspective is important for several
reasons. First, it provides alternative explanations for the
observation that the Internet seems to have amplified the growth
and spread of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience. In the
same way partial treatments with antibiotics can make bacteria
more resistant, the Internet provides PK with exposure to
significant but non-fatal doses of hostile attacks. At the same
time, PK responds well to diverse audiences because it rapidly
assimilates new information that will increase the size of its
engaged audience.
Second, this perspective highlights an important gap in our
understanding of PK. PK survives on the substrate of many
minds, and the only criteria that govern its survival are those that
improve its ability to survive in this context. It must be
engaging, easy to defend, and interesting for a large enough
audience. If a given body of PK has such properties, we might
say it is highly fit’. Yet, we lack established methods for
evaluating the fitness of a body of PK. There are certainly many
sources for such a set of methods, including the fields of
naratology and developmental psychology, as well as beyond
the academy, among those who practice the art of storytelling.
We believe an important direction for future work is to
formulate and begin testing such a body of methods.
We think that this is an important gap to fill en route to
developing new methods to combat PK. The “state-of-the-art”
approach of saturating a social system with rational, evidence-
based argument [54] does not consider the drivers of PK
evolution on the Internet and could, paradoxically, inoculate
greater resistance. By developing a better understanding of what
makes a certain body of PK fit or unfit, we may be able to
develop principled strategies for deploying narrative or social
dynamics that impair the fitness of an entrenched body of PK.
6. CONCLUSIONS
Our analysis offers an initial study of the evolution of online
pseudo-knowledge. We have found evidence that PK is highly
adaptive, responding to the dynamics of the social substrate it
inhabits. Over time, individuals who flow in and out of an online
conversation enrich a body of knowledge in a manner that
makes it both more resilient and more engaging. This
perspective serves as a counterpoint to prior research that
focuses on the motivations of individuals, rather than the
dynamics of PK itself.
We believe these findings are a critical step in developing
methods to counter the many kinds of PK used to justify human
actions that impair individual autonomy, harm the environment,
and cost lives. To advance this research agenda, it will be
necessary to streamline our methods, which cannot currently be
automated and will not scale beyond individual case studies.
Developing automated techniques for analyzing the structure of
knowledge embedded in conversation is thus not only a
fascinating technical challenge for computational researchers,
but may be instrumental in understanding how the Internet can
alter, or enhance, the growth of collective knowledge.
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... In addition, papers that provide Empirical Evidences regarding the context of this study form the second largest contribution type (18%). Theses empirical evidences can be in different forms such as experiments, case studies, user studies, etc [44,45,46]. 1 Papers in Table 4 are numbered according to the primary studies list found at https://goo.gl/14hbQQ On the other hand, there is an evident lack of papers (4%) that examine the literature on misinformation spread on social media [47,48]. ...
... By analyzing Figure 7, It is apparent that misinformation detection approaches are being the most contributed work amongst the selected papers in relation to the 4 research areas of online misinformation (75%). However, less contributions have been devoted to empirical evidences mainly on the dynamics of misinformation (9%) such as [46,45] and the management of misinformation (6%) such as [31]. On the other hand, solution proposals make the most research facet type (65% papers) investigating the spread of online misinformation on social media from different aspects. ...
... On the other hand, solution proposals make the most research facet type (65% papers) investigating the spread of online misinformation on social media from different aspects. A 20% of the selected papers were philosophical in their nature and shed the lights mostly on the dynamics of misinformation such as [46,45]. ...
Conference Paper
Misinformation is widely and rapidly spreading on social media platforms. This could result in severe negative effects on users and the quality of online generated content. Luckily, there is a growing interest among researchers to combat this spread of misinformation on social media platforms. Despite this growing interest and to the best of the author's knowledge, there are no studies that cover and classify the types of research being published on this topic. To overcome this gap, the author performed a literature systematic mapping to produce a comprehensive overview of this research area. This results in the identification of 101 primary studies that met the inclusion/exclusion criteria of articles defined in this study. These primary studies were then categorized according to their research type, contribution type, and research focus. The results indicated that most studies focus on providing solutions to detect misinformation spread on social media platforms. In contrast, these is a lack of research on areas such as the validation and evaluation of proposed detection solutions, the use of digital intervention techniques to minimize users spread of misinformation and the management of misinformation spread. This study is meant to help domain researchers and practitioners to identify research gaps and future research opportunities on topic of this study.
... In this paper we consider CTheories as components of a broader, shifting narrative [12,41], and then examine the collective production of this narrative across three different online anti-vaccination discussion communities. The most significant contributions of this paper are methodological: we present a rigorous approach for identifying online conspiracy theories and mapping them using a narrative framework that was previously developed to examine online pseudo-knowledge [18,19]. Our approach allows us to organize and analyze a diverse variety of connected conspiracy theories across a set of topic-specific discussion communities at different levels of abstraction. ...
... We continued with this process until we had definitions for both categories that led to a high degree of intercoder agreement. Our final definitions blend prior work on CTheories and the story grammar previously discussed by Introne et al. [19]: ...
... Following previous work (Introne, Iandoli, DeCook, Yildirim, & Elzeini, 2017), we refer to false narratives that 785639S MSXXX10.1177/2056305118785639Social Media <span class="symbol" cstyle="Mathematical">+</span> SocietyIntrone et al. have begun to take on the heightened status of a plausible reality within a community as pseudoknowledge (PK). ...
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Misinformation has found a new natural habitat in the digital age. Thousands of forums, blogs, and alternative news sources amplify fake news and inaccurate information to such a degree that it impacts our collective intelligence. Researchers and policy makers are troubled by misinformation because it is presumed to energize or even carry false narratives that can motivate poor decision-making and dangerous behaviors. Yet, while a growing body of research has focused on how viral misinformation spreads, little work has examined how false narratives are in fact constructed. In this study, we move beyond contagion inspired approaches to examine how people construct a false narrative. We apply prior work in cognitive science on narrative understanding to illustrate how the narrative changes over time and in response to social dynamics, and examine how forum participants draw upon a diverse set of online sources to substantiate the narrative. We find that the narrative is based primarily on reinterpretations of conventional and scholarly sources, and then used to provide an alternate account of unfolding events. We conclude that the link between misinformation, conventional knowledge, and false narratives is more complex than is often presumed, and advocate for a more direct study of this relationship.
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If we wish to more folly account for how conspiracy theories function in twenty-first century America, then we must be able to move beyond treating conspiracy theories solely as flawed arguments. This essay will argue that conspiracies fulfill two roles—the argumentative role traditionally studied that asserts that some powerful entity is engaged in a grand scheme to control or deceive the masses, and what I shall call the coded social critique role-an underlying message that critiques various social, political, or economic institutions and actors. In other words, the point of dispute in the competing theories and government accounts is equally over the different institutions' ethos and legitimacy as it is over the facts of the crash itself.