People spread falsehoods and fake news more rapidly and widely than factual news, new research reveals. Untruthful news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than true news, according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The research team analyzed about 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. They classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations. About 126,000 rumors were spread on Twitter between 2016 and 2017.
The top 1 percent of false news “cascaded” to between 1000 and 100,000 people. Factual news rarely spread to more than 1000 people.
Farther, Faster, Deeper
“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information,” researchers state in the journal Science.
The researchers use the term “false news” because they say the term “fake news” has become too politicized.
False news doesn’t spread quickly because people who share the fake reports are influential. Twitter users who spread false reports tend to have fewer followers. False news or misinformation spreads because it’s more novel than true news, and people are more likely to share novel information, the researchers conclude. While false stories inspire fear, disgust and surprise in replies, true stories inspire anticipation, sadness, joy and trust.
Don’t Blame the Bots
Many media experts blame automated accounts, or bots, for spreading fake news. The robot accounts can quickly post and retweet thousands of messages. Twitter recently embarked on a mission to rid its service of bots after allegations Russian-backed bots had interfered with the 2016 election.
However, the MIT researchers believe bots are not the major culprit. A bot detection algorithm researchers used 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.”
Determining if an account is a bot is difficult, says Joan Donovan, a sociologist who studies media manipulation at the Data & Society Research Institute and who was not involved in the study. “Even if bots aren’t the problem and it’s people and networks moving information, this paper gives us better leverage and insight into what we need to evaluate,” Donovan told The Verge.
While the study focused on Twitter, its findings hold implications for other social media networks such as Facebook which has battled a fake news problem.
“Concern over the problem is global. However, much remains unknown regarding the vulnerabilities of individuals, institutions, and society to manipulations by malicious actors. A new system of safeguards is needed,” writes a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars in Science.
Numerous Solutions Pursued
Many observers say Facebook’s efforts to control fake news have been ineffectual. In a recent attempt, Facebook asked randomly selected users to rate the trustworthiness of news outlets. However, reviewers may trust fake news sites or low-quality sites with names closely resembling legitimate mainstream publications, writes Clemm, a researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, in The Washington Post. In addition, partisan viewers will disproportionally participate in surveys and give high ratings to their favorite news outlets.
While social media networks continue to struggle with the problem, many companies, celebrities, politicians and other well-known individuals rely on media monitoring services to monitor fake news websites. A media monitoring service can immediately notify organizations, celebrities or their PR personnel when fake news sites mention their names. That allows PR to quickly spot misinformation, swiftly correct false information and demand removal of fake news stories.
Bottom Line: False information spreads faster and farther on social media than real news, according to new research. Companies, celebrities and PR pros who represent them will likely find the research alarming. The research highlights the difficultly social media networks face in controlling the spread of fake news.
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.