False stories travel way faster than the truth This Oct. 26, 2016 file photo shows a Twitter sign outside of the company's headquarters in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File/Kim Siever/Flickr)
False stories travel way faster than the truth
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Twitter loves lies. A new study finds that false information on the social media network travels six times faster than the truth. And reaches far more people.

And you can't blame bots. It's us, say the authors of a new study. It is the largest study of online misinformation.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at more than 126,000 stories tweeted millions of times between. They were tweeted between 2006 and the end of 2016. This was before Donald Trump took office but during the combative presidential campaign. They found that "fake news" sped through Twitter "farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information." That's according to the study in Thursday's journal Science.

"No matter how you slice it, falsity wins out." That's according to co-author Deb Roy who runs MIT's Laboratory for Social Machines. She is a former chief media scientist at Twitter.

Twitter funded the study but had no say in the outcome. That’s according to the researchers.

The scientists calculated that the average false story takes about 10 hours to reach 1,500 Twitter users. But it takes about 60 hours for the truth to reach Twitter users. On average, false information reaches 35 percent more people than true news.

True news stories almost never got retweeted to 1,000 people. But the top 1 percent of the false ones got to as many as 100,000 people.

Researchers looked at how stories cascade. That is how they link from one person to another like a family tree. False information reached as many as 24 generations. But true information maxed out at a dozen.

Concern over bogus stories online has escalated in recent months. This is due to evidence the Russians spread disinformation on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Social media companies have experimented with using computer algorithms and human fact-checkers to try to weed out false information and abuse online. Twitter earlier this month said it is seeking help from outside experts to better deal with the problem. And Facebook this week announced a partnership with The Associated Press to identify and debunk false and misleading stories about the midterm elections.

"We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers." That was according to a tweet by Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. "We aren't proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough."

The MIT study took the 126,285 stories and checked them against six independent fact-checking sites. They used the sites to classify stories as true, false or mixed. Nearly two-thirds were false and under one-fifth were true. The rest were mixed.

The six fact-checking websites agreed with each other on classification at least 95 percent of the time. Two outside researchers did some independent fact-checking to make sure everything was OK. That is according to  co-author Sinan Aral, an MIT management professor.

Lead author Soroush Vosoughi is an MIT data scientist. He identified three false stories that traveled the farthest and fastest. The first was about a Muslim guard called a hero in the Paris bombings of 2015. The second was about an Iraq war veteran finishing as runner-up to Caitlyn Jenner for an ESPN courage award. And the third was about an episode of "The Simpsons" with story line in 2000 about a Trump presidency. (It was in 2015.)

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a University of Pennsylvania communications professor and a co-founder of factcheck.org. She had problems with the way the study looked at true and false stories. The MIT team characterized a story's truth on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 being completely false. Factcheck.org, Jamieson said, looks more at context. It does not label something either true or false.

She also suggested that calling this bogus information "false stories" does not capture how malignant it is. She said it would "better be called viral deception."

The researchers looked at obvious bots and took them out. Bots are automated accounts. The bots tweeted false information at a higher rate than humans, but it wasn't that much of a difference. And even without bots, lies still spread faster and farther, Roy said.

David Lazer is a political and computer scientist at Northeastern University. He wasn't part of the study, but he wrote an accompanying report. He praised the MIT research. But he said the scientists may have missed a lot of bots and cyborgs. Cyborgs are sort of in-between humans. His ongoing research has found that about 80 percent of false stories come from just one-tenth of 1 percent of users. His research has not been published yet. 

The researchers dug deeper to find out what kind of false information travels faster and farther. False political stories — researchers didn't separate conservative versus liberal — and stuff that was surprising or anger-provoking spread faster than other types of lies, Aral said.

"Falsehood was significantly more novel than the truth," Aral said. "It's easy to be novel when you make things up."

That fits perfectly with previous research on the psychology of fake information, said Yale University's Dan Kahan and Dartmouth College's Brendan Nyhan. They are both scientists who study the phenomenon.

"The more strange and more sensational the story sounds, the more likely they are going to retweet," Kahan said.

Nyhan and Lazer said that while more fact-checking and education of people on how to tell fake from real can be helpful, the more effective solution will have to come from the social media platforms themselves.

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Why is this issue a cause for concern?
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COMMENTS (100)
  • AnnabelleA-del
    3/26/2018 - 05:46 p.m.

    This article was about how our society works. Humanity feeds off of lies. Lies spread faster than truth, especially on social media. It was scientifically proven by students at MIT. We should seek truth, and only truth. Who wants to be lied to? (Not me)

  • MikhailP-del
    3/26/2018 - 06:18 p.m.

    This article is about twitter and that some people think it is a problem while others don't. I believe twitter is great because I love social media and it makes our world a better place.

  • WilliamF-del
    3/26/2018 - 06:22 p.m.

    This article proves that people like to lie more than tell the truth. So many lies are on the internet(article based on twitter) that it reaches to the people than true stories. The founders of twitter are disappointed because people are using their service to write bogus information. I hope people learn how to tell the truth.

  • JosephF-del
    3/26/2018 - 06:24 p.m.

    This article is about how fake news can travel faster than news then news that is legitimate. This is surprising because how do you know what is genuine and what isn't.

  • GregoryM-del
    3/26/2018 - 07:07 p.m.

    False stories travel way faster than the truth. On Twitter lies can spread without any way of stopping it

  • JasminderK-del
    3/26/2018 - 07:22 p.m.

    This article is about how quickly lies spread on twitter, they spread 6 times faster than the truth and have a big impact, I see this happen on twitter daily, someone spreads a lie trying to get attention and it works, but someone finds out the truth yet no one seems to care.

  • EsmeraldaV-del
    3/26/2018 - 07:41 p.m.

    This article was based on how false stories travel more quickly than true ones. I honestly 100% agree. Most of the time, (not all the time!) fake news is more interesting or dramatic rather than the truth. People enjoy it more, and they send it to their friends who send it to their friends who ... etc.

  • ChloeT-del
    3/26/2018 - 09:18 p.m.

    This article is about rumors and false information that can spread really quickly, especially on social media. A study shows that"false information can travel six times faster than the truth." On Twitter, 35% of false information reaches the people more than true information and true news rarely gets retweeted on Twitter. This is an issue because we are just believing all these rumors and fake news and we are not truly searching for the facts and information first.

  • PedroM-del1
    3/26/2018 - 09:22 p.m.

    THis is issue a cause for concern because fake news could lead to fear or depression or anger or depression. But also bots and cyborgs also do some bad stuff to so there is still unrest in our sad world.

  • ChloeR-del
    3/26/2018 - 09:40 p.m.

    This story is about false stories or fake news and how it is spreading faster, farther and deeper than truth on the social media like Twitter. Studies have been made by MIT among others that how those stories were spread and retweeted six times more than the real news during the US presidential campaign using bots and cyborgs. They cascade more than the truth because usually they are more surprising or sensational and attract more attention, People are using fact-checkers website to fight the spread of false news. Those websites have helped identify and debunk almost all the fake news. People can get educated to recognize fake news and prevent their propagation, but at the end of the day, the best solution would be for the social media to find an efficient way to deal with it themselves.

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