False news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than true ones
March 14, 2018
From Market Watch
It is said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” — a quote often attributed to Mark Twain but — ironically — the true origins of which are unclear. This untraceability of the truth underscores the timelessness of the problem, one that was quantified in a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released last week.
The study found falsehoods travel farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, “in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” according to Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the paper.
• On Twitter TWTR, -0.61% , false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories, and it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it takes for false stories to reach the same number of people.
• Falsehoods are also retweeted more widely than true statements at every depth of a “cascade,” which is how the study refers to unbroken tweet chains. These chains travel 10 to 20 times more quickly than facts.
Why are falsehoods so alluring?
Usually because they are more interesting than the truth, said Aral. “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” he said. It also creates a false sense of expertise for some. “People who share novel information are seen as being in the know,” he added.
The research comes at a time that “fake news,” a loaded term the authors of the study deliberately chose not to use, has been cited as an epidemic. Congress is investigating how Russia may have infiltrated the 2016 election with fake bots spreading inaccurate or falsified news reports.
Meanwhile, President Trump has used the term “fake news” to criticize negative coverage of his policies or reports of his poor approval ratings. A previous Ipsos Public Affairs study found that fake headlines fool American adults 75% of the time.
Although fake news bots have gotten attention, the MIT study found humans are equally to blame: when researchers removed bots from their dataset, the rate at which false news spread compared to accurate news remained unchanged.
What can be done about fake news?
A spokeswoman for Twitter said the company is actively seeking solutions to the so-called fake news problem, citing a recent announcement from chief executive officer Jack Dorsey. Unlike FB, +0.67% Twitter allows anonymous accounts or those with pseudonyms or multiple accounts, but these policies are difficult to enforce.
“We are looking to outside experts to help us identify how we measure the health of the public conversation on Twitter,” she said. “As part of this we’ve issued a request for proposals; selected applicants will collaborate directly with our team, receive public data access and meaningful funding for their research.”
David Mondrus, founder and chief executive officer of Trive, a startup that targets fake news, said there have been failures on the part of foreign governments and domestic governments, as well as private entities like media companies that have led to the rise of fake news.
His program uses crowdsourcing, rewarded and incentivized by cryptocurrency, to root out false stories. “This is a way for us to take the power of crowds to do verification work away from news organizations and give it to people,” he said.
As startups and social media giants work to target the problem, researchers behind the MIT paper said there is much more work to do. Researchers were “surprised and stunned” at the magnitude of the problem uncovered in the study, said Deb Roy, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab and director of the Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines, who is also a co-author of the study.
The researchers found some people were spreading fake news purposely while others were unwittingly sharing unverified stories. Because of this, more careful studies and varied responses to the two-part problem are required.
And until then? “Think before you retweet,” Roy said.