A recent MIT study led by Sinan Aral, published in the journal Science in early March (2018) found that ‘false news’ spreads much more quickly than real news—and it seems to be humans, more than bots, who are responsible for the imbalance.
Fake political news stories spread the fastest, but the findings also applied to stories on urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment, and natural disasters.
Aral’s team of researchers looked at sample of 4.5 million tweets created by about 3 mmillion people over an 11 year period. Together these tweets formed 126,000 “cascades” of news stories, or uninterrupted retweet chains. The researchers compared to spread of false vs. true news stories, verified by using sites such as factcheck.org.
The main findings
- false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted,
- while true stories never reached past a ‘cascade-depth’ of 10, false stories spread to a depth of 19,
- false studies reached a cascade “depth” of 10 about 20 times faster than true ones.
- true news stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 readers as false ones did,
- “False political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information,”
- humans were more likely to spread the false news than bots,
- Fake news tended to be associated with fear, disgust, and surprise, whereas true stories triggered anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.
Why do people spread fake news?
The authors of the study offer a ‘neutral’ explanation – simply that fake news is more ‘novel, novelty attracts more human attention, and ‘novel news’ is more valuable – individuals gain more status for being the ones who share novetly (or at least peopel think they will gain more status) and novel information tends to be more useful in helping us make decisions about how to act in society.
Ironically, spreading false news tends to have the opposite effect: it makes individuals who spread it look stupid and may lead to us taking fewer risks and to a misallocation of resources as we attempt to mitigate this (non-real) risks.
Relevance to A-level Sociology?
This is a great example of hyperreality…. to paraphrase Baudrillard, False News never happened… but it has real consequences.
It’s worth noting the limits of the study too… it’s limited to Twitter and doesn’t really help us to understand where fake news comes from, for example.
The fact that it’s humans, not bots spreading false news means that interventions will be more difficult and more complicated, because it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to find a technological fix for the problem.
I could imagine that Gomm and Gouldner would criticise this study as being ‘too neutral’… it could have looked more at the ideological bias of the political fake news stories, and the profiles of those spreading fake news, for example.
The Spread of True and False News Online – Science, March 2018