From The Atlantic, March 8, 2018. fake news “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” Jonathan Swift once wrote. (Usually, I put content from others in italics, but in this case my own comments will be in italics, because I have included so much of the article here, and it’s easier to read in regular print)
It was hyperbole three centuries ago. But it is a factual description of social media, according to an ambitious and first-of-its-kind study published Thursday in Science. The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor.
Though the study is written in the clinical language of statistics, it offers a methodical indictment of the accuracy of information that spreads on these platforms. A false story is much more likely to go viral than a real story, the authors find. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject—including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment—fake news about politics regularly does best.
Twitter users seem almost to prefer sharing falsehoods. Even when the researchers controlled for every difference between the accounts originating rumors—like whether that person had more followers or was verified—falsehoods were still 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news. “It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013 and who led this study. He made a truth machine: an algorithm that could sort through torrents of tweets and pull out the facts most likely to be accurate from them. It focused on three attributes of a given tweet: the properties of its author (were they verified?), the kind of language it used (was it sophisticated?), and how a given tweet propagated through the network.
Why does falsehood do so well? The MIT team settled on two hypotheses. First, fake news seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the all the tweets that have appeared in a user’s timeline 60 days prior to their retweeting them, the team found. Second, fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet. The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to the 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.