People, Not Bots, Spread Fake News Faster

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Online social media spreads news — or at least what passes for news — more rapidly, to more people, than any previous type of media. As they say, that’s not news.

What may be news is that falsehoods spread faster than the truth and the effects of false political news spreads faster than false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.

According to a report in Science magazine, the appeal of false news may be in its 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. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

The report, “The Spread of True and False News Online,” was written by three researchers from MIT who reviewed approximately 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. They then classified the news as either true or false as determined by information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited a 95% to 98% agreement on classifications.

The authors avoid the term “fake news” because, they say, the term has lost any meaning it may have had:

Politicians have implemented a political strategy of labeling news sources that do not support their positions as unreliable or fake news, whereas sources that support their positions are labeled reliable or not fake.

The term also implies a willful distortion of the truth which, in turn, requires a determination of the motive behind the false news.

Here are some nuggets from the report:

False political news also diffused deeper more quickly and reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people.

[W]e found that falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth … , even when controlling for the account age, activity level, and number of followers and followees of the original tweeter, as well as whether the original tweeter was a verified user.

Although false rumors were measurably more novel than true rumors, users may not have perceived them as such.

The emotions expressed in reply to falsehoods may illuminate additional factors, beyond novelty, that inspire people to share false news. Although we cannot claim that novelty causes retweets or that novelty is the only reason why false news is retweeted more often, we do find that false news is more novel and that novel information is more likely to be retweeted.

Though one might expect network structure and individual characteristics of spreaders to favor and promote false news, the opposite is true. The greater likelihood of people to retweet falsity more than the truth is what drives the spread of false news, despite network and individual factors that favor the truth.

We conclude that human behavior contributes more to the differential spread of falsity and truth than automated robots do. This implies that misinformation-containment policies should also emphasize behavioral interventions, like labeling and incentives to dissuade the spread of misinformation, rather than focusing exclusively on curtailing bots.