Complexity of the Online Distrust Ecosystem and its Evolution

Illari, Lucia; Restrepo, Nicholas J.; Johnson, Neil F.

Collective human distrust (and its associated mis-disinformation) is one of the most complex phenomena of our time. e.g. distrust of medical expertise, or climate change science, or democratic election outcomes, and even distrust of fact-checked events in the current Israel-Hamas and Ukraine-Russia conflicts. So what makes the online distrust ecosystem so resilient? How has it evolved during and since the pandemic? And how well have Facebook mitigation policies worked during this time period? We analyze a Facebook network of interconnected in-built communities (Facebook pages) totaling roughly 100 million users who pre-pandemic were just focused on distrust of vaccines. Mapping out this dynamical network from 2019 to 2023, we show that it has quickly self-healed in the wake of Facebook’s mitigation campaigns which include shutdowns. This confirms and extends our earlier finding that Facebook’s ramp-ups during COVID were ineffective (e.g. November 2020). Our findings show that future interventions must be chosen to resonate across multiple topics and across multiple geographical scales. Unlike many recent studies, our findings do not rely on third-party black-box tools whose accuracy for rigorous scientific research is unproven, hence raising doubts about such studies’ conclusions, nor is our network built using fleeting hyperlink mentions which have questionable relevance.