Last updated March 22, 2018 at 11:34 am
Social media is the perfect tool for spreading false claims.
Twitter is great for some things, but it’s also utterly terrible. One of the worst things (apart from the harassment, sexism, racism and trolling) is its ability to quickly and easily spread fake news and propaganda. Social media seems to be riddled with people spreading false statements.
By ‘fake news’ we’re talking verified false or made-up claims, not the label that people use to describe everything they don’t like or agree with.
However, why is it that the fake news seems to spread and get more attention than the truth, or even things that debunk the false claim?
Researchers from the US have tackled this question, and tracking actual social media posts found that false news travels further, faster, than the truth.
The spread of fake
The team analysed roughly 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. The stories were designated as true or false based on six independent fact-checking organisations.
Overall, they found:
- False information spread significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth across all categories of information
- falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth
- the truth rarely spread to more than 1,000 people
- the top 1% of fake news stories routinely spread to between 1,000 and 100,000 people
- political news was the most virulent, spreading three times faster than other fake news topics
Of course, fake news has the advantage of being about whatever the writer wants. It can be creative and outlandish, and completely different to all other coverage. This novelty gives it an advantage, in the study they found that the more novel the news, the more likely it was to be retweeted.
Fake news can also be tailored specifically to cause an emotional reaction from the audience, and exploit that emotional reaction to increase its spread. The study found that false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, whereas true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.
Using an algorithm to remove bots from the analysis, the researchers also discovered that humans had a greater role than bots in the spread of fake news.
Exploiting human nature
There’s no doubt that fake news is one of the hot topics of the last 2 years. From nations using social media to spread fake news and propaganda and potentially sway elections, to teens using it to earn money, the spread of fake news has drawn much attention recently in a political context. In the U.S., political polarisation has caused a dislike of the “other side,” fostering an environment where fake news can attract a mass audience.
Human nature also means that we tend to prefer information that is familiar and supports our own preexisting view on a topic.
It has been estimated that the average American encountered between one and three stories from known publishers of fake news in the month leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election – although that is also thought to be a conservative estimate.
So how do we nip it in the bud? In a follow-up paper, researchers suggested two key approaches – focus on empowering people to evaluate the fake news they encounter, and secondly to bring about structural changes to limit the exposure of fake news.
But most of all, the media needs to get on board and recreate a news ecosystem and culture that values and promotes the truth.
The research has been published in Science