We Are All David Frum, False-Rumor-Spreader

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Photo: Andrew Stawicki/Toronto Star/Getty Images

By now, you may be aware of The Atlantic senior editor and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum's unfortunate recent foray into the netherworld of unhinged internet rumors. If not, Erik Wemple posted a good rundown yesterday. The short version is that Frum, based on evidence that doesn't even rise to the level of "scant," accused the New York Times of running a manipulated photo by contributing photographer Sergey Ponomarev, presumably to gin up support for Gazans and/or outrage toward Israel.

Here are the offending tweets:

They didn't get hugely retweeted or anything, but since Frum has more than a hundred thousand followers and is a big name in media circles, his tweets did force theTimes to debunk a totally baseless claim. "After the flare-up," Wemple writes, "Ponomarev was asked to forward his 84 raw images of the sequence to New York Times headquarters so that his supervisors could waste their time verifying that Frum had no basis for his claims."

Frum clearly should have known better — the claim simply doesn't hold water, as Michael Shaw explained in the BagNewsNotes post that originally debunked it (note: this post didn't originally include a link to BagNewsNotes, but it should have). And the source of the claim, whom Frum linked to in his first tweet, appears to be mentally ill, as Ali Gharib found out when he interviewed him and looked into his past blogging (I don't use the term lightly or to ridicule). So why did Frum pass along this particular bit of internet jetsam?

Rumor research can help explain this. People are way more likely to pass on rumors when they fit into the comfortable grooves worn by confirmation bias — that is, when they confirm something we already "know," whether or not it's true. Frum's apology was telling:

As anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows, there is a long history in the region of the use of faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda. Image management is a feature of all modern war, but in the Middle East it often seems that combatants put more effort into shaping perceptions than winning any strategic result on the ground. Most recently, images from the war in Syria have repeatedly been tweeted and retweeted as Israeli-inflicted casualties in Gaza.

It's rare to get such a bracing glimpse into the mechanics of confirmation bias and how it incubates false rumors. Frum saw a rumor, the part of his brain that says Yeah! Of course they would do that! lit up, and he passed on that rumor without investigating it.

So-called channel factors are also part of the story here. These are the little situational variables that make it easier or harder to engage in a difficult sort of behavior. If getting a flu shot means taking an hour-long bus ride across town, you're a lot less likely to than if someone offers you one at a drugstore in which you're already shopping, even if you're aware of how important it is.

Social media makes it very easy to pass on any old bit of information. Imagine if Frum had to write up a whole blog post if he'd wanted to share this information — it would have been a longer, more involved process, and one that would have granted him a bit more time to think through whether this was a piece of information he really wanted to broadcast to his multitudinous readers.

With Twitter and Facebook, though, it's just a matter of a click or two. That's why, while it's fair to say that Frum should be held to a higher standard than the average Twitterer, he engaged in what is unfortunately a very common behavior. Think about the last time you passed along a piece of information that sent your outrage-meter into the red by retweeting, liking, or sharing it. Did you click through? If you clicked through, did you cross-check everything you were reading to make sure it was accurate? Probably not. That's why almost all of us have at least a bit in common with David Frum when it comes to our propensity to amplify information that we haven't verified.

Part of what makes social media so much fun is its breakneck pace and the ease with which information can be shared. There's a cost to all this frictionless information sharing, though, especially when everyone is worked up over a major news event.