Research has found that people spread falsehoods and fake news more rapidly and widely than factual news. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, untruthful news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than true news. Misinformation spreads because it’s more novel than true news, and people are more likely to share novel information, researchers say.
While many blame automated accounts, known as bots, for the deluge of false news, the study found that bots spread false news and real news at the same rate. “So, bots could not explain this massive difference in the diffusion of true and false news we’re finding in our data,” says the study’s co-author Sinan Aral, an MIT professor. “It’s humans that are responsible.”
Human brains are hardwired to respond to changes in their environment and fake news presents change. “Us oh-so-smart humans don’t just fall for fake news, we are attracted to it. Like moths to a flame, we follow its fascination to our doom,” writes Bill Paarlberg, editor of The Measurement Advisor from Paine Publishing.
Algorithms Can’t Solve the Problem
Large tech companies have tried to contain fake news and misinformation mostly through technology solutions. While the algorithms have worked to some degree, fake news still flourishes in social media. Technological solutions don’t address the root problem of why fake news spreads virally. Combatting fake news calls for human solution, not more newsfeed algorithms (though improvements there will undoubtedly help).
Limiting false information requires greater information literacy throughout the entire population. With greater information literacy, people will know how to critically analyze information. They’ll be able to spot suspicious news, verify sources, and separate opinions from fact. They won’t believe everything they see online and will think twice before sharing on social media.
“To truly solve the issue of “fake news” we must blend technological assistance with teaching our citizens to be literate consumers of the world around them,” argues Kaleve Leetaru, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, in an article for Forbes.
Leetaru urges schools to invest more in teaching information literacy and critical thinking
Silicon Valley companies believe technology is the answer – more algorithm updates, content blacklists, and fact checkers. Leetaru disagrees. “The problem is that technology can only mitigate the symptoms, it cannot address the underlying cause of digital falsehoods: our susceptibility to blindly believing what we read on the Web and our failure to verify and validate information before we share or act upon it,” Leetara says.
Digital Literacy Help from Twitter
Social media networks are beginning the process to address digital literacy. Specifically, Twitter just published its new handbook for educators, Teaching and Learning with Twitter with UNESCO.
The handbook, Twitters says, aims to help educators teach younger generations how to critically analyze news and information they view online. In addition to providing advice on online safety, privacy and bullying, the guide explains how to question and fact check information.
“The old saying of ‘don’t believe what you hear on the radio/ read in the papers still holds true in relation to the digital world,” the handbook states.
The guide is a good step in the fight against fake news, says Andrew Hutchinson at Social Media Today. “Digital literacy is a key problem, and education tools like this will hopefully help to shift the balance away from such in future,” Hutchinson says.
Educational institutions, media and corporations must step up with new public education programs to improve information literacy. For civic-minded corporations, it’s a major public relations opportunity.
Some say artificial intelligence will be a valuable tool. “New advances in identifying false information and detecting machine-generated text using AI will help to curb the spread of false information and cut off the more ludicrous claims at the source—provided that those in positions of influence are prepared to fight it,” states AI expert Charles Towers-Clark in Forbes.
Bottom Line: Efforts to limit the spread of fake news and information online have so far focused on technology solutions, but many experts believe education offers a better strategy. Information literacy will educate everyone to critically analyze and question false news reports and outright lies.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.