How to Stop the Spread of Rumors


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Barack Obama’s campaign, even from its earliest days, has been the target of a large number of negative rumors, many of them traveling in email chain letters, forwarded from person to person. They recently launched a new microsite called “Fight the Smears” designed to counteract them. The Washington Post published an article about a researcher studying the origins of the email forwards who found that the emails were the result of a totally organic collaborative effort, where most of the participants were unaware of the identities of the others. Stopping these rumors at the source is not an option.

I don’t want to get into the politics behind the rumors, or even their truth (or lack of), what I wish to do however, is analyze the science of stopping or neutralizing rumors from a memetic perspective and see what can be learned and even applied. I’ve written about how to spread rumors, so I decided to write about how to stop rumors. I was motivated by this post from PositivelyBarack.com that cited my post about email chain letters.

Humans, especially modern humans are exposed to countless memes everyday since birth. Many of the ideas we come in contact with are incorrect, counter-productive or potentially even dangerous, so how does the human brain protect itself from toxic memes and how can memetic immunity be used to help counter-act the spread of negative rumors?

In 1997 Liane Gabora wrote a paper called “A Day in the Life of a Meme“, in which she mentioned that infants develop mental barriers to potentially disruptive memes, as well as memes that may be “embarrassing or disturbing or threatening to the self-image.” And Susan Blackmore said in a lecture: “Memetic immunity comes from education, reading, sharing ideas with others and above all from free speech – the freedom to learn about all sorts of ideas, compare them as you will and choose for yourself which to believe.” Clearly people have a set of innate memetic immunities, and yet many adults become “infected” with the aforementioned incorrect, counter-productive and dangerous memes.

The most common way societies try to suppress certain ideas is through censorship. In memetic terms this can be understood as an attempt to eliminate the vectors by which a meme can spread, trying to prevent it from being published in news papers, or mentioned on television or radio. With the advent of the internet the actual act of eradicating broadcast outlets for a message has become basically impossible, and when dealing with particularly virulent memes, they would have spread, person-to-person, without major media anyways. The memetic lexicon also mentions that by reducing potential vectors, and thereby increasing the evolutionary pressures on memes, censorship “may actually help to promote the meme’s most virulent strain, while killing off milder forms.”

The memetic lexicon refers to something called a “Vaccime” that is an idea virus that confers immunity to other ideas on those who “catch” it. If a person has been exposed to the “round world” vaccime they will not believe or spread on the “flat world” meme. Vaccimes are typically found in memeplexes, those large collections of ideas like Conservatism, Orthodoxy, and Science, and “protect against rival memes.” The lexicon lists several examples:

  • Conservatism: automatically resist all new memes.
  • Orthodoxy: automatically reject all new memes.
  • Radicalism: embrace one new scheme, reject all others.
  • Nihilism: reject all schemes, new and old.
  • New Age: accept all esthetically-appealing memes, new and old, regardless of empirical (or even internal) consistency; reject others.

Snopes is a very well known collection of vaccimes against urban legends that spread via email chain letters, a quick search on the site turns up confirmations or debunking of the most common memes. Many memes, particularly chain letters, have developed traits (like unverifiable details and intangible rewards or punishments) which make them harder to disprove and thereby immunize against in this fashion.

Obama’s Fight the Smears website is an example of a collection of
vaccimes designed to neutralize rumors circulating about the candidate. Similar to Snopes, it is a clearinghouse of the various negative memes currently spreading and information debunking them. It also urges users to send the campaign copies of things like email chain letters that contain instances of existing or new rumors so that the campaign can debunk them before they gain much steam.

Another method of “defeating” memes is mentioned by Kas Graham (referring to Umberto Eco): “subverting of memes by mutating them. Taking a prevalent meme, for instance the Gap logo, and associating it with something bad – like Hitler.” Activist publications and organizations like AdBusters use this technique extensively and it can be compared to the manufacture of biological vaccines where a harmful strain of a virus is weakened and used to create immunity. I have not seen the Obama campaign utilizing this tactic in its campaign against rumors.

Unlike most biological vaccines, many memetic immunizations induce a state of contact immunity. According to Wikipedia, contact immunity is define as “the property of some vaccines wherein contact of unimmunized individuals with a vaccinated individual can confer immunity.” Often times when an individual who has been immunized to a particular email chain letter receives a copy of it. he or she will reply with a message debunking the meme (sometimes simply a link to a site like Snopes). Giving users easy access to immunizing information and the tools to share it widely can turn a newly immunized individual into a walking-vaccime, and the Fight the Smears site does just that.

The goal of any immunization (biological or memetic) campaign is not to ensure that every individual in the population has become immunized, rather to achieve a state of herd immunity.

From Wikipedia:

Herd immunity (or community immunity) describes a type of immunity that occurs when the vaccination of a portion of the population (or herd) provides protection to unvaccinated individuals. Herd immunity theory proposes that, in diseases passed from person-to-person, it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune. The more immune individuals present in a population, the lower the likelihood that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infected individual.

When the number of immunized individuals in the population exceeds the critical immunization threshold the population is considered to have herd immunity and the disease or meme will die out. The threshold is calculated with a formula that takes into account the pathogen’s reproduction rate, that is the mean number of other individuals one infected person will infect. In the formula shown, qc is the critical threshold while Ris th reproduction rate. Given enough research and study it may be able to determine the memetic immunization threshold for memes like negative Obama rumors, if the reproduction rate of the rumors could be determined, a goal could be established for number of individuals who are exposed to the vaccimes on Obama’s Fight the Smears site.

When discussing memetic immunization, herd immunity becomes an important concept because of contact immunity. Rather than merely reduce the chances a person will come in contact with another person who has been “infected” by a particular meme, it also increases the chances of a person coming in contact with an immunized person, thereby becoming immunized themselves. Additionally, herd immunity causes the probability that a broadcast of a meme (like an email chain letter) will be interrupted and counter-acted by a immunized individual, neutralizing many of the meme’s vectors for growth.

Much like seeding is an important concept in meme spreading, it is equally important in the control of memes. In an article titled “Memetic Warfare“, Dan Noe describes a clever way to identify and immunize individuals who are at high risk of being exposed to the target meme:

A possible way of keeping the number of competitors small is to lay traps for those who fit the psychological profile of a potential competitor. For example, seminars could be advertised that would appeal to people like them. Then, when they arrive, carefully present the material in such a way as to discourage them from continuing (or beginning) in their meming.

The Obama campaign seems to have taken this advice (if unconsciously) by specifically targeting the faith community on the Fight the Smears page with a call to action for supporters to send letters to the Evangelical community:

Take a few minutes to write a positive and respectful note asking members of the evangelical community to discourage the use of personal attacks and prejudice to divide Americans.

The faith community in general and the traditionally conservative Evangelicals in particular have been a rich source of hosts for anti-Obama memes and targeting them with contact immunized supporters seems a good way to begin to stem the tide.

The science of memetics provides a wealth of information that can be used by political campaigns (and other entities) to fight negative rumors and the Obama campaign, while perhaps not using this body of data overtly, has taken a large step forward towards a memetic immunization strategy with the new micro-site.

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Petition 2.0

While working on NoInternetTaxation.org, I realized the flexible power of the online petition model for political campaigns and advocacy groups. It is low a lost cost tactic that can be used not only to create viral policy-affecting petitions, as well as to start or build on lists and communities for fundraising and awareness efforts.

So I took the code I used for No Internet Petitions, including the Facebook app and the and packaged it up. This way I can offer the full functionality in a custom-designed microsite for other individuals or groups who may want to leverage this powerful model.

If you’d like to discuss how I can implement this package for your campaign, or suggest something I should add to it, email me.

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Political Marketing on the Web

I wrote a few posts a while back about online political marketing (and online political research. As I said then, I’m going to add what else I’ve learned since then.

There are three main goals to political marketing, enlisting volunteers, raising money and getting your message out and voted for. Its easy enough to set up conversion goals in an analytics system for volunteer signups and donations (ROI calculations are even possible for the donations), but measuring message acceptance can get tricky short of doing a poll or survey type questionaire. Traditional engagement metrics like time on site and page views per visit as well as loyalty metrics like return frequency and percentage of return visitors and be used to measure can be an approximation. I’d expect to see an “agreement” metric correlate to both donations and volunteer signups. Those three metric groups are the best KPI for any multivariate testing, which is also a very powerful political marketing technique for the web.

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Frank Luntz’s Words that Work and Youtube Dial Sessions

I just got finished audio-booking pollster Frank Luntz’s new book Words that Work. While I’m very different from Luntz politically (he’s the guy who renamed the estate tax to the death tax, and is anti-“illegal immigration”) I’m absolutely fascinated by his work with language, specifically his testing methods. The book is a great read/listen especially for an online marketing professional who relies on words and images entirely to sell a product or a viewpoint, lots of great stuff in there.
But what really piques my interest in Luntz, and has since I first became aware of him when I watched the documentary “The Persuaders”, is his testing methods and how they overlap with the split and multivariate testing stuff I’ve been doing. Obviously testing wording variations with something like Google’s Website Optimizer is easy enough, but he uses another method that I think is missing from the internet marketing toolbox: dial sessions.
A dial session is shown in the movie and he refers to them in the book, but the idea is that a bunch of people watch a video and turn a knob at the same time. If they agree with the video they turn the knob one way and if they disagree the other way. I’m going to look into implimenting an ajax slider control in conjunction with youtube videos to create an online dial session system. I think the sheer breadth of content and test subjects available makes this a goldmine of useful data.
Obviously there are some challanges to address, like recording second by second data, correlating video content to slider position and interfacing with youtube’s flash widget, but I don’t reckon it’ll be too hard.
Stay tuned, I do plan to share my tool when developed.

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Political Search Marketing Experiment Part 1

I didn’t notice it until today, the 3rd but the perma link page for my boston city council SERP probe is 5th at google but nowhere in msn or yahoo. I had expected the homepage to show up first, before the perma link, but the page has a freshtag of Feb 1, 2007, the day after I made that post.
Incidentally I also made it in the evening on the 31st.
I further expect this page to disappear for a few days when the freshtag goes away.

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Political Marketing and the Boston City Council

I’ve written before about online political marketing and research, but now I’d like to do a little experimention.
Obviously, the first place to look is search, how competative is this niche exactly? 2007 is an election year for Boston’s City Council members, essentially a smaller race in an “off” political year. Everyone’s looking to 2008. First I’ll start with a blog post, nothing tricky or even very aggressive; best not to bring a gun to a knife fight. My question is this:
Can I rank well for a high level (relative to the niche) search term like Boston City Council with a simple post on an obliquely related site?
I say obliquely because this blog is not really about politics or even Boston, but as I live in one and am interested in the other, I do mention them from time to time. I might even mention this specific topic more in the future.
My initial research with wordtracker into the keywords has revealed low volume at this point in the year:

  • boston city council 3

Keyworddiscovery’s longer sample revealed more keywords, but still low numbers:

  • boston city council 374
  • politics city council boston 11
  • stephen murphy boston city council 9
  • matt o malley boston city council 8
  • boston city council at large candidates 7
  • city council members boston ma 7
  • boston, massachusetts city council social policy 7
  • joe ready boston city council 6
  • john connolly boston city council 6
  • connolly for boston city council 4

The traffic over history graph doesn’t show any seasonal trends, since last year was not a city council election year.
Now, I’m a little worried about over repetition of the keyword, but we’ll see what happens, the content was organically created.

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Online Political Market Research

Market research is the process of understanding the market, what consumers want, what they have, what they can afford, and what will make them want your product or service. I’m oversimplfying here of course, but bear with me. Political research is the same, it begins with understanding the voters, their wants and dislikes and the triggers that will drive them to make the actions you want them to make (usually casting a vote in your candidate’s favor).
The first place we start when doing research for a search marketing effort is in the keywords and competition, so lets assume we’d do the same when planning an online political marketing campaign. If you’ve got deep pockets, hitwise data could come in handy here, telling you which search terms drive traffic to political websites, and which websites in fact have the most traffic, but this won’t come cheap. We’ll have to rely on lower cost tools, Wordtracker, keyworddiscovery, alexa, etc. Scouring location specific keyword searches you should be able to locate the issues and candidates that are searched on most often, and you should also be able to get a rough idea of which sites get the most traffic. That will be a rough sketch of what the online political “market” in your region looks like.
Finding voters’ triggers is more akin to the persuasion and conversion analysis that we often do on commercial websites. Multivariate testing seems to be the most direct and possibly fruitful application of these concepts to the political arena. For instance, we could construct an article or essay on a topic and specific some sort of success metric, a survey or email subscription form. Then we’d test different keywords, themes, framings, etc to see which resonated most with readers and produced the highest levels of success (however we’re defining that). Of course, as is the case in commercial testing but more so in political testing, we’d have to pay close attention to the source of the traffic, perhaps pre-screening those who are most likely to already agree with the concepts were testing and those most likely to disagree.

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Online Political Marketing

First, some statistics:

  • In 2004, over 40% of Americans got campaign information online. (source)
  • Another study said that in 2003, 68% used the net to keep up with political candidates, and 29% submitted their email address to receive more info. (source)
  • In 2006 51% of liberals got election information online. (source)

More data:

First, we heard about google bombing. Crude and inefficient, but potentially hilarious and powerfully grassroots. And then, of course, there was Howard Dean’s blog that almost won him the democratic nomination. In the past few elections, blogs have played an integral role in elections, uncovering scandal and debunking lies, but that’s the tip of what the online marketing iceberg can do for politics, even at a local level. With the rise of consumer generated media, there are a multitude of places candidates, parties, and organizations can turn to get their message out.

Here’s a few ideas:

  • Blogging
  • Wikipedia
  • SEO
  • Email
  • YouTube
  • Digg
  • Indymedia
  • Forums
  • Viral Ads/LinkBait

I plan to research this area more in the coming weeks and months, so look out for my posts.

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