Spreading False News

Spreading False News Photo Credit: Clipart.com.

Why false news spreads faster than the truth on social media.


Re-tweeting falsehoods. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Ever since it began tweeting to the masses in 2006, Twitter has spread both true and false news around the globe. Now, MIT researchers report in the journal Science that false news spreads much faster than the real thing. Applied statistician Sinan Aral and his team analyzed every tweet verified to be a true, false, or mixed news story between 2006 and 2017.

What we found was that false news travels farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in every category of information that we studied.

He says false news about politics spreads especially quickly, and can have real-world consequences on financial markets and elections, for example. His team hypothesizes that the relative novelty of false news attracts attention, compelling people to retweet it. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

There has been a lot of talk lately about the spread of fake news and its impact on the 2016 Presidential election as well as on people’s perceptions of important issues of the day. One recent example is a picture of Emma González, one of the young organizers of the 2018 March for Our Lives, that shows her holding and tearing up the U.S. Constitution. This image of Emma shows her doing something she has never done. It is false but that hasn’t stopped it from being spread on social media.

One insidious thing about what the researchers of this study call false news, instead of fake news, is that it appears to be very hard to combat. According to applied statistician Aral at MIT, the false news “diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude.”

The researchers came to this conclusion after they studied a data set of approximately 126,000 rumor cascades—information shared, despite it contradicting a person's prior knowledge or understanding of a situation—spreading on Twitter, which were cumulatively tweeted over 4.5 million times by about 3 million people, from the years 2006 to 2017. They figured out whether or not a news story was true or false by consulting six different fact-check sites: factcheck.org, hoax-slayer.com, politifact.com, snopes.org, truthorfiction.com, and urbanlegends.about.com. They also made sure to remove any bots, which are often thought of as being the main perpetrators of spreading false information.

By looking at this data, the researchers found that the top one percent of false news cascades spread to between 1,000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely circulated to more than 1,000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth.

But why do falsehoods spread faster than the truth on Twitter? The researchers hypothesize that this happens because humans like new things. “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” says Aral. Since the information appears novel, then, it attracts more attention and gets shared more often. It also makes it seem like the person doing the sharing is in the know. The researchers also saw different reactions to the false news as opposed to the true news. For the most part, people reacted with disgust and surprise to the false news while they reacted with sadness, anticipation, and trust to the true news.

More research needs to be done in order to determine for certain why the false news spreads faster and discover ways to combat it.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is false news?
  2. Why is it hard to combat the spread of false news?
  3. How did the researchers conduct this study of the spread of false news versus true news?
  4. What did they discover?
  5. Why do the researchers think that falsehoods spread faster on Twitter than the truth?
  6. Why do you think that falsehoods spread faster? Explain.

You can learn more about how false information is spread by listening to the Science Update True or False. This podcast considers a study that suggests correcting false information can sometimes make matters worse.

The Lying on Email Science Update looks at research about lying via email that may lead to computer software that can spot online con artists and other predators.

Going Further

For Educators

Since this Science Update touches on social media use and the spread of false news, it can be used to engage students in a discussion about the responsible use of technology and of the importance of checking sources before forwarding information via social media. You could engage your students in a discussion about how societies influence what technologies are developed and how they are ultimately used.

In addition, you and your students could listen to the Science Update Phone Fibbing to further explore communication and why some forms of communication are more trustworthy than others.

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