Fake news travels far faster than the truth

Alicia Cross
March 10, 2018

"False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information", said Sinan Aral, a co-author and professor at MIT Sloan, in a statement. The act of labeling news as false, some early studies have shown, might increase its spread.

While the study focused on Twitter, the researchers said their findings likely also would apply to other social media platforms including Facebook. The study is published today in the journal Science.

The study found that the topics covered in the false stories were increasing political in nature rather than false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.

Before we proceed, let's pause for a moment to define our terms. "We refer to any asserted claim made on Twitter as news", they said.

False information is likely more widespread because it plays on salacious or controversial elements in ways the truth typically can not, according to the researchers.

Instead, false news speeds faster around Twitter due to people retweeting inaccurate news items.

"Twitter became our main source of news", Mr Vosoughi said. In the wake of the recent Parkland school shooting, YouTube has started banning accounts that spread the rumors that the teenagers now advocating for gun control are "crisis actors". A rumor's diffusion process can be characterized as having one or more cascades, which we define as instances of a rumor-spreading pattern that exhibit an unbroken retweet chain with a common, singular origin. Vosoughi remains skeptical, though, and said that he thinks these interventions will influence only a small number of people. But contrary to popular belief, it is largely people who spread the misinformation, not robots. A fake story with 1,000 likes is worth a lot more to social networks than a true story with 30.

Also of interest is the fact that true stories took about six times longer to reach the first 1,500 people compared to false stories.

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Rumor cascades based on true news "rarely" spread to more than 1,000 people.

But the top 1 percent of falsehoods routinely had audiences of 1,000 to 100,000 people, the study authors reported. Also, the time it took for a true rumor cascade to reach a depth of 10 was almost 10 times longer than the time it took for a false rumor cascade to reach a depth of 19. A more robust identification of the factors that drive the spread of true and false news will require direct interaction with users through interviews, surveys and lab experiments.

Much of the reason why fake news spreads so quickly was broken down into three categories.

However, even if a one-size-fits all solution exists, the study makes it clear that the human propensity for salacious gossip will hinder any efforts to combat misinformation.

They call for more high-quality research into the false news problem and what can be done about it, pointing to reforms in the early 20th century that gave rise to legitimate newspapers with ethics promoting objectivity and credibility out of the ashes of a boisterous yellow press. In particular, they looked at the likelihood that a tweet would create a "cascade" of retweets.

The truth tended to elicit sadness, anticipation, joy and trust.

To see whether bots were at fault for the promulgation of nonsense, Vosoughi and his colleagues used a bot-detection algorithm to identify and remove all bots before they ran duplicate analyses. I have bad news: It's not the bots.

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