In one of the largest studies of its kind, MIT researchers examining thousands of fake news stories going back a decade on Twitter have determined that fake news is more likely to spread across the social network than factual information. “Duh,” you said, but the statistics might be even worse than expected.
As the New York Times summarizes:
False claims were 70 percent more likely than the truth to be shared on Twitter. True stories were rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top 1 percent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people. And it took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.
That’s … not great! “Maybe it’s the bots!” I have bad news: It’s not the bots. Adjusting for automated accounts didn’t change the frequency with which false news completely dominated the ecosystem. Which is not to say that bots don’t matter going forward, but to say that in a data set spanning from Twitter’s inception in 2006 to the end of 2016, bots did not skew the propensity for fake news across the social network.
Much of what spurs the spread of fake news is novelty (for instance, the infamous fake news story about the Pope endorsing Trump). “We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust,” the researchers, Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral write. Put another way, humans love clickbait, they love to be surprised, but they are also prone to things that validate their fears.
“The key takeaway is really that content that arouses strong emotions spreads farther, faster, more deeply, and more broadly on Twitter,” professor of political science Rebekah Tromble told The Atlantic.
The study highlights that fake news is, at its core, a problem with human nature and our worst impulses, giving in to base instincts and confirmation bias. But understanding that human judgment is flawed and shrugging is a very “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” sort of argument. Social networks like Twitter amplify and spread fake news, and their business models are predicated not on providing accurate information, but on pumping up engagement. A fake story with 1,000 likes is worth a lot more to social networks than a true story with 30.
One could also make the argument that trying to unite millions of people into a single ecosystem where content and ideas bleed across barriers assisted by algorithmic amplification rather than human intent is pushing past the limits of human nature and impulse. Maybe social networks like Twitter and Facebook and the like are simply too big, and their inhabitants too closely linked, to safely handle the flow of information.