With access to Twitter’s historical archives, the researchers tracked 126,000 cascades of news stories tweeted more than 4.5 million times by some 3 million people from 2006 to 2017. These effects were more pronounced for false political stories than for any other type of false news.
They found that “fake news” sped through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information”, according to the study in Thursday’s journal Science.
Aral’s team used software to spot automated “bot” accounts on Twitter, which have been suspected of distorting the way in which news travels. A recent study of the browsing histories of thousands of US adults in the months before the 2016 election found that false news accounted for only a small portion of the total news people consumed. And the study explicitly avoided the term “fake news”, which, the authors write, has become “irredeemably polarized in our current political and media climate”. Between 1,000 and 100,000 Twitter users, real news stories only reached about 1,000, or 1 percent.
“When you remove them from your analysis, the difference between the spread of false and true news still stands”, said Soroush Vosoughi, who also co-authored the study. In order to take personal bias or outliers out of the equation, the researchers honed in on tweets that could be determined true or false by a 95 percent agreement between each of the six sources.
And what is the impact of all this fast-moving false information? A rumor’s diffusion process can be characterized as having one or more cascades, which we deﬁne as instances of a rumor-spreading pattern that exhibit an unbroken retweet chain with a common, singular origin. In January, the Republican Party handed out “Fake News Awards”.
University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a co-founder of factcheck.org, had problems with the way the study looked at true and false stories.
The recent indictment of 13 Russians in the operation of a “troll farm” that spread false information related to the 2016 USA presidential election has renewed the spotlight on the power of “fake news” to influence public opinion – and focused attention on the role of social media companies like Twitter and Facebook to monitor their content.
Users who spread false news had significantly fewer followers, followed fewer people, were less active on Twitter, were “verified” less often, and had been on Twitter for less time than users who spread accurate news.
Aral told CNN that this all points to the fact that “behavioral interventions” might be part of the solution to combating fake news. “This would be true whether social media existed or not”, he added.
The study highlights that fake news is, at its core, a problem with human nature and our worst impulses, giving in to base instincts and confirmation bias.
“No matter how you slice it, falsity wins out”, said co-author Deb Roy, who runs MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines and is a former chief media scientist at Twitter. Although Aral says he hasn’t yet studied why politics seems particularly vulnerable to fake news, he thinks it’s partly due to attention and at least partly to partisanship.
For the past number of years, propaganda and misinformation has been festering on platforms like Twitter, as numerous outlets and individuals prey on preconceived notions and inflammatory content to glean clicks from users.