When false news hits Twitter, it moves faster and farther than the truth - approximately 6 times faster than standard news. To stop the spread of fake news, we have to first understand it.
Fake news is a type of journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. This false information is mainly distributed by social media, and periodically circulated through mainstream media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and / or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue. Intentionally misleading and deceptive fake news differs from obvious satire or parody, which is intended to amuse rather than mislead its audience.
A new study published in Science finds that false news online travels “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.” And the effect is more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.
Falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth, researchers found. And false news reached 1,500 people about six times faster than the truth.
The study, by Soroush Vosoughi and associate professor Deb Roy, both of the MIT Media Lab, and MIT Sloan professor Sinan Aral, is the largest-ever longitudinal study of the spread of false news online. It uses the term “false news” instead of “fake news” because the former “has lost all connection to the actual veracity of the information presented, rendering it meaningless for use in academic classification,” the authors write.
To track the spread of news, the researchers investigated all the true and false news stories verified by six independent fact-checking organizations that were distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. They studied approximately 126,000 cascades — defined as “instances of a rumor spreading pattern that exhibits an unbroken retweet chain with a common, singular origin” — on Twitter about contested news stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Twitter provided access to data and provided funding for the study.
The researchers removed Twitter bots before running their analysis. They then included the bots and ran the analysis again and found “none of our main conclusions changed.”
“This suggests that false news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” the researchers wrote.
The amount of false news on Twitter is increasing and spikes during key events, like the presidential elections of countries. While one might think that characteristics of the people spreading the news could explain why falsity travels with greater velocity than the truth, the data revealed the opposite. Users that spread false news had significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter, were “verified” significantly less often, and had been on Twitter for significantly less time. Falsehood diffused further and faster despite these differences, not because of them.
The data support a “novelty hypothesis.” False news was more novel than the truth and people were more likely to share novel information.
False rumours also inspired replies expressing greater surprise, corroborating the novelty hypothesis, and greater fear and disgust. The truth, on the other hand, inspired greater sadness, anticipation, joy, and trust. These emotions, expressed in reply to falsehoods, may shed light on what inspires people to share false news.
Our assessment is that social media is able to systematically amplify falsehood at the expense of truth and no one – neither an expert or a tech company – is able to reverse this trend. We believe that this is particularly dangerous for any form of government premised on a common public reality.
Read more: Combating fake news