BOSTON — New research into the science of fake news indicated that false or misleading stories spread notably faster on Twitter than real news.
Perhaps even more surprisingly was the study found that human users, not Twitter bots, are responsible for this fake news acceleration, according to researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“We found that falsehood defuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” says Sinan Aral, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in a release.
The researchers tracked about 126,000 cascades of news stories — that is, large chains of frequently retweeted pieces of content — on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The stories were cumulatively tweeted more than 4.5 million times by about 3 million people during that time frame. They determined which stories were false and which were true by fact-checking them on several reliable news sources.
Aral and his team were stunned by how much faster fake news stories proliferated through the vast social media network. They found that the inaccurate stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than legitimate content. In fact, the results showed that it takes true news stories six times as long to reach 1,500 users as false news.
The research team has a theory for why false information spreads much faster than true information. They believe people retweet stories online they find new and different from other commonly shared items on their feed. That may be a result of one’s desire for attention by being the first to bring something new to a conversation.
“False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” explains Aral. “People who share novel information are seen as being in the know.”
They tested this theory by taking a subsample of Twitter users who spread false news and analyzed the responses to those false stories. Responses to fake news were usually characterized by “surprise and disgust,” while real news was responded to with “sadness, anticipation, and trust.” They found that the surprise people have when interacting with false information fits in with their theory of novelty fueling this proliferation of pointless propaganda.
As for how Twitter users can battle the fake news epidemic, the researchers offer a very simple solution: “Think before you retweet.”
The full study was published in the journal Science.