People would rather spread juicy lies rather than the truth, according to new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Last week, in a writeup of the research, Science reported that claims that are demonstrably false – as in, tweets related to news that had been investigated by six independent fact-checking organizations, including PolitiFact, Snopes and FactCheck.org – are 70% more likely to be retweeted. Bogus claims about politics spread further than any other category of news included in their analysis.
Must be those meddlesome bots, eh? That’s what the researchers preliminarily assumed. But it turned out that it was humans, relishing new (false) information that they hadn’t seen before. The team arrived at its conclusion by using bot-detection technology to weed out social media shares generated by bots.
Even without the busybody bots, fake news still spread at about the same rate and to the same number of people. Specifically, the researchers had found that truth rarely reached more than 1000 Twitter users. The most outlandish fake news, on the other hand, routinely reached well over 10,000 people.
One example was the false reports about the boxer Floyd Mayweather wearing a Muslim headscarf and challenging people to fight him at a Donald Trump rally during the 2016 US presidential election. It originated on a sports comedy website, catching fire as people took it seriously. Fairy tales such as the Mayweather concoction routinely reach over 10,000 Twitter users.
Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT, told Science that it was the viral posts after the Boston Marathon bombings – posts that spread rumors about a missing Brown University student thought to be a bombing suspect (he later turned out to have committed suicide for reasons unrelated to the bombing) – that really brought home to him what an effect fake news can have on real lives.
[That’s when I realized] that these rumors aren’t just fun things on Twitter, they really can have effects on people’s lives and hurt them really badly.
If we can’t blame bots for fake news going viral, his team thought, perhaps it has to do with how many followers a disseminating account has?
Nope: people who spread fake news actually have fewer followers, not more.
That left the content of the tweets themselves. What the researchers found was that tweets with false information were refreshingly novel: they had new information that a Twitter user hadn’t seen before, making them feel fresher than true news stories. The fake news tweets were also far more emotionally provocative, eliciting more surprise and disgust in their comments.
Science quotes Alex Kasprak, a fact-checking journalist at Snopes:
If something sounds crazy stupid you wouldn’t think it would get that much traction. But those are the ones that go massively viral.
Unfortunately, crazy stupid can become crazy dangerous. In June 2017, a 29-year-old man who fired a military-style assault rifle inside a popular Washington pizzeria, wrongly believing he was saving children trapped in a sex-slave ring, was sentenced to four years in prison.
The judge said at the time that it was “sheer luck” that Edgar Maddison Welch didn’t kill anybody.
That was a case study in how fake news gets onto Twitter in the first place. It started with hacked emails on WikiLeaks… which got scoured for political wrongdoing in the Clinton campaign staff by a popular Reddit forum dedicated to Donald Trump and 4chan’s far-right fringe message board… and which wound up confabulated into “PizzaGate” by somebody on 4chan who connected the phrase “cheese pizza” to pedophiles, who use the initials “c.p.” to denote child pornography on chat boards.
Thanks to a recent study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Cyprus University of Technology, University College London and Telefonica Research, we have a better understanding of how tightly knit, highly active fringe communities on sites such as 4chan and Reddit are an important part of our current news ecosystem and often succeed in spreading alternative news to mainstream social networks such as Twitter and on out to the greater web.
One takeaway from these studies: if we’re getting our news from Twitter, we should bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the table. At the rate it’s going, fake news is elbowing out the truth, and we don’t even have bots to blame: just our own, very human hunger for something new.
19 comments on “Fake news travels faster than truth on Twitter, and we can’t blame bots”
Because it’s easier to make something look interesting when you’re not concerned with accuracy?
“…fired a military-style assault rifle ”
Thanks for spreading fake news.
I think most people would accept that an AR-15 is “military style”. It’s effectively a civilian M16, after all. You might argue with the designation “assault rifle” (Colt says they’re for “personal defence” or “sport”) because it won’t fire bursts all by itself…but an AR-15 seems to relate to “defence” in the sense that “the best form of defence is attack”, wouldn’t you say?
Semantics Mr Ducklin. A play on words if you will and words with a negative connotation in these days but your logic is correct. It seems we can even use this play on words to make these fake news articles more enticing and believable. I’m surprised that MIT would lower themselves to write a paper on such an obvious Cause and Effect study. Journalist have known for years that misinformation carries farther on the public’s lips than the truth. 🙂
An assault rifle means select fire, which that doesn’t have. These guns have also been specifically modified to make it difficult to turn it back into an automatic weapon. Calling a weapon that can be used to attack someone as an “assault weapon” effectively turns everything into assault weapons. Is this the reasoning that lead to the UK’s restriction of assault butter knives requiring ID and assault free speech that hurts other people’s feelings?
“This made-up dog-whistle that adds nothing pertinent to the story and may distract from the real issue at hand– most people that think like me agree with it, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s accurate.”
I would suggest this is exactly the kind of mental process that leads people to uncritically assume that “fake news” that they like is real, and so they pass it on. Not to pick on you; it can happen to all of us if we’re not really careful. I’m sure it happens to me sometimes without me realizing it.
Or I might argue with the designation “assault rifle” simply because the term has a specific meaning, and that meaning does not apply to the AR-15.
noun: assault rifle; plural noun: assault rifles
a rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic rifle designed for infantry use.
That seems a perfectly reasonable description of an assault rifle.
However, the AR-15 also met the criteria of an “assault weapon” as set out by the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, as well as being one of the models specifically named in it (alongside similar weapons like the FN/FAL, Steyr AUG etc).
You may or may not agree with the ban, or the means by which weapons were included or excluded in it, but it’s a fact that for a decade US law considered the AR-15 an assault weapon.
And for MANY decades, U.S. law considered people of African descent to be less than human. So what is your point?
An AR-15 fails some tests for what passes for an assault rifle by a width of a cigarette paper and passes others by a similar margin. Therefore a divisive term like “fake news” is unwarranted.
Yep. Fake news got the guy to go there, and real news sensationalized it back into fake news to keep the fear rate up, and get more views.
As per the first line of the story: “People would rather spread juicy lies rather than the truth, according to new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).”
And last line “At the rate it’s going, fake news is elbowing out the truth, and we don’t even have bots to blame: just our own, very human hunger for something new.”
It’s so common, most people don’t notice…
We’re going to need to update Godwin’s Law to accommodate accusations of “fake news” I think.
I’ll be the one to argue that’s exactly what Hitler would have done, shall I?
Godwin’s law in 2018 is calling someone a bot for their political views
I have often wondered why such obvious lies are believed by anyone, even people I believe to be intelligent and well-educated. My conclusion is that they are believed because the person passing them along wants to believe them. They are often stories that disparage the political figure the user dislikes or which support racial or ethnic stereotypes that are held by the user. That leaves the question as to whether they actually believe the stories they propagate, or do they pass them along knowing they are false but hoping others will believe them. I suspect there are some of each, but most believe them – because they want them to be true.
Bloody humans. You’re all alike.
(sarcasm) You sound like a pitbull. BSL BSL
It’s possible that we flatly reject the “conclusion” of these ‘fact checking’ organizations. Just because they say something is “debunked” doesn’t mean they’re not lying to us either maliciously or inadvertently due to lack of information.
No reputable fact checking organization is going to deem something “true” or “false” & hope you take their word for it. They will list their data, sources, and methodology, so as to remove any room for doubt. After all, the facts…are the facts.
Of course, there will still be some people who will “reject the conclusion” of these organizations no matter what the evidence. These days it’s become common for people to simply “regect” facts that are incompatible with their world view, as if objective truth is something you can “choose” not to believe.