How influencers and algorithms are creating unique realities for everyone

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David: The key to these gangs are influential people. How did they become so powerful?

Renee: They have followers. Even conspiracy theorist influencers have millions of followers at this point. Mainstream media doesn’t get that kind of readership on a particular article or audience on a particular subject matter. But influencers are pushed into your feed by algorithms and they have the ability to respond, to engage in a way that media brands often don’t.

David: How important a role do algorithms play in getting these influencers to get their message across?

Renee: Influencers need to be seen by their audience, and having that connection with your audience is important, but it’s always going to be determined by what the algorithm is delivering to people, especially because more and more of the in-feed real estate is determined not by who you follow, but by what it thinks you want to see.

David: In your book you write about Ali Alexander, an influential figure who helped organize the Stop the Steal movement in 2020. How did people like Alexander become so influential?

Renee: People who are not Trump supporters may see him as a clown, but the group he is speaking to, they trust him, they believe in him, and he compels them to take action. It is very important to understand the impact that influential relationships have in shaping reality or inspiring people to act in some way. They actually come from the crowd and they are given their power because the crowd continues to engage with them and support them and motivate them.

David: Is that what Trump is doing?

Renee: What you see over and over again with Trump is what we call a bottom-up rumor mill, where people chatter about things, he says it, they post it, they tag him, he retweets them, then they get the benefit of that additional influence within the community. They’ve done their part, they’re fighting for the cause. You see them working this system very cleverly on Truth Social (where) they’re constantly growing fans and followers and driving a lot of engagement among the online supporter base.

David: What are we missing in the current information environment?

Renee: What worries me most is the ability of people to make something a trend, to create reality by reinforcing these conspiracy theories over and over again. You have this constantly changing set of realities, where after years of reinforcing the same narratives and stories, a deeply held belief has formed. You can’t fix this by just fact-checking.

David: And with the demise of the Stanford Internet Observatory, there are even fewer people fact-checking this stuff. Who or what was responsible for your departure from Stanford?

Renee: The chilling effect of congressional investigations and related legal battles and the politicization of research is real. Institutions need to understand the writing on the wall. We have seen these tactics in the past, such as during attacks on climate scientists a decade ago, yet the strategy continues to work. If fake investigations of politically inconvenient findings succeed in intimidating institutions, more fake investigations will follow.

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Where do you get your political news these days (besides WIRED Politics, of course)? Do you stick to traditional media (newspapers, broadcast TV) or do you subscribe to political newsmagazines, podcasts, and social feeds? Do you consciously try to get news from different viewpoints? Or do you feel like you’re living in an information echo chamber?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment on the site, or send me an email at [email protected].

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