By Adam Fraser
What constitutes “fake news” is a thorny topic, itself. People seem to define it as everything from wacky conspiracy theories all the way through to opinions they don’t like or agree with.
While there has been a vast discussion on the topic, it has always been hard to gauge just how significant this trend was. Hence, it was interesting to read details of a study conducted by 3 MIT scholars showing that fake news spreads faster on Twitter than real news, and by some margin. Quite a stark finding.
“We found that falsehood diffuses 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, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the paper detailing the findings.
“Oh, it must be the bots!” I hear you say. Not so, say the researchers, it is humans that are to blame:
“When we removed all of the bots in our dataset, [the] differences between the spread of false and true news stood,” says Soroush Vosoughi, co-author of the paper, whose PhD research helped give rise to the current study.
To conduct the study, the researchers tracked approximately 126,000 cascades of news stories spreading on Twitter, which were cumulatively tweeted over 4.5 million times by around 3 million people, between 2006 and 2017. Some of the key findings were:
- False news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.
- It takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.
- When it comes to Twitter’s “cascades,” or unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods reach a cascade depth of 10 about 20 times faster than facts.
- Falsehoods are retweeted by unique users more broadly than true statements at every depth of cascade.
“False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information; people who share novel information are seen as being in the know,” says Aral.
Very interesting findings from a respectable piece of scientific research. What this means for society more broadly, of course, becomes an arduous question.