False news travels much faster than true news

Ivan Schwartz
March 13, 2018

They found that "fake news" sped through Twitter "farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information", according to the study in Thursday's journal Science.

Even without bots, false news still spread at roughly the same rate and to the same number of people, leading the researchers to suggest that human psychology is responsible.

Falsehoods were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth. They were led by Sinan Aral, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass. Bots don't talk back, and neither do fake-news-spreading trolls. The scourge of fake news became widely decried starting two years ago during the 2016 presidential election in the US and the decision by voters in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

The researchers also settled on the term "false news" as their object of study, as distinct from the now-ubiquitous term "fake news", which involves multiple broad meanings.

So Aral's team chose to use the term "false news" instead.

False stories typically contained something new or surprising - whereas true stories could get repetitive. To that end, they measured the "information uniqueness" of rumours and discovered that false rumours were more likely to contain new, but wrong, information.

"It seems to be pretty clear that false information outperforms true information", Vosoughi told The Atlantic Magazine. "People who share novel information are seen as being in the know".

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And it's a concern, Menczer said.

The study looked at hundreds of thousands of news stories spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. They said it could be because fake news tends to be "more novel".

The researchers verified the accuracy of the stories by consulting fact-checking websites that investigate media information and widely circulating rumors - like snopes.com and factcheck.org. Responses to fake news were usually characterized by "surprise and disgust", while real news was responded to with "sadness, anticipation, and trust".

When it comes to Twitter's "cascades", or unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods reach a cascade depth of 10 about 20 times faster than facts.

The truth was also slow-moving, the study found. Even the farthest-reaching true rumours rarely spread to more than 1,000 people. Researchers found that the spread of false information is essentially not due to robots that are programmed to disseminate inaccurate stories. Instead, humans seemed to be the driving force behind false stories' popularity. They found that the surprise people have when interacting with false information fits in with their theory of novelty fueling this proliferation of pointless propaganda. And Roy says the findings may help create "measurements or indicators that could become benchmarks" for social networks, advertisers, and other parties. The report also found that "novel" information was more likely to be retweeted. But the researchers said they can not comment on how the company might use the findings.

But Menczer said that to truly address the problem, he believes the sites should work with academic researchers, and not just use their own in-house researchers.

"Remember that any of us can be manipulated", Menczer said.

This article has been adapted from its original source. "It's not just 'other people'".

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