While it may be unsurprising that fake news spreads quickly – particularly when taking into account the investigations into the use of social media to spread propaganda in the last US Presidential Election and the Brexit vote – there may be some that would be shocked to know that it spreads six times faster than the truth on Twitter.
That’s according to recent research by MIT, in what is allegedly the biggest study to date into fake news.
Fake news is popular
Researchers found lies were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth, and this was even the case when controlling factors such as whether the Twitter account was verified, the number of followers the account had, and how old it was. Automated accounts otherwise known as bots also didn’t change the frequency with which false news dominated the ecosystem.
“[Fake] news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” the researchers said.
The research, published in the journal Science, looked into how swiftly fake news could spread on Twitter, using six fact-checking organisations as a basis for labelling the news as ‘true’ or ‘false’. In total, they scoured through 126,000 stories on Twitter which has been tweeted by approximately 3.5 million users more than 4.5 million times between the years 2006 and 2017.
Other key findings included the fact that true stories were very rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, while on the flipside the top one per cent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people. True stories took six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.
According to the researchers, falsehood spread “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”.
Novelty and emotion
So why does fake news spread far quicker than the truth? The answer is novelty.
“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 said.
In other words, news that validates fears, or that brings upon strong emotions are more likely to get Twitter users to engage. This then sets in motion a domino effect, with other Twitter users being shown fake news that is retweeted and then retweeting it themselves.
In truth, this shouldn’t be surprising – fake news is a term that has been brought to light because of an incredible rise in content that isn’t factual represented as truthful information. People who want to believe something or who want their own views reinforced are likely to share this content to their followers.