On Twitter, false information travels farther and faster than the truth. Really

Jon Howard
March 10, 2018

An MIT study published Thursday in Science Magazine shows fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than the truth. And to reach 1,500 people, it takes true stories six times as long as it does for false stories to spread.

Interestingly enough, data also indicates that computer programs - bots - spread true and false news about equally which suggests humans are primarily to blame for the spread of fake news. In assessing the emotional content of tweets, they found that false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, whereas true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.

In fact, those who 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", said the study.

"One reason false news might be more surprising is, it goes against people's expectations of the world", Vosoughi said in an interview.

"News can be quite misleading even when not overtly false", added Katz, founder of the True Health Initiative, which aims to replace fake health claims and fad diets with reliable and accurate information. That's likely because falsehoods are more novel and click-y than the truth - and we're more likely to share what's new. But when the researchers took bots out of the equation, they found that humans were still 70 percent more likely to retweet fabrications over facts.

In that article, Menczer and a number of other researchers, scholars, and scientists call for more large-scale scientific investigations into fake news, like this new study from MIT.

So what advice do these researchers have to fight fake news? "People who share novel information are seen as being in the know".

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Concern over bogus stories online has escalated in recent months because of evidence the Russians spread disinformation on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign to sow discord in the United States and damage Hillary Clinton. Changing those incentives to deter fake information could make a difference. As Menczer and his colleagues point out in their commentary, topics of concern to the public, such as vaccinations and nutrition, are susceptible to fake news, too.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other key internet players should ramp up their curatorial capacities, write 16 academic researchers in an essay for the same issue of Science.

The ability to investigate more platforms is crucial to understanding the scope of social media's false-news problem.

Prof Aral, Soroush Vosoughi and associate professor Deb Roy began their research in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing in 2013. How many people did they interview? The authors cite preliminary evidence quantifying the reach of fake news, with one conservative study estimating that the average American encountered between one and three stories from known publishers of fake news during the month before the 2016 USA presidential election.

Some of these sites are readily available for everyday use which include factcheck.org, hoax-slayer.com, politifact.com, snopes.org, truthorfiction.com, and urbanlegends.about.com.

Retweeting or liking a tweet is similar to voting for it, making it more likely to be seen (and retweeted again) by others.

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