Human Nature Spreads Fake News Faster Than the Truth

March 12, 2018 - 5 minutes read

AI app developer

Who’s to blame for the spread of fake news? Common suspected culprits are Russian bots and social media platforms propagating false information without any checks in place.

A recent study from MIT hints at a more disparaging truth — we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

“Falsehood diffused farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”  This is the abstract from a comprehensive study by MIT that followed more than 100,000 news stories on Twitter. Encapsulating approximately ten years worth of tweets (from 2006 to 2017), each story was verified to be true or false by one of six organizations specializing in fact-checking (Snopes, Truth or Fiction, About.com, Hoax Slayer, PolitiFact, and FactCheck.org).

After this step, researchers monitored a number of variables for each story like how they were posted, how many times they were retweeted, how far a message traveled from the original account, etc. The data revealed that false stories spread faster and further than their real counterparts by magnitude. For instance, the top 1% of false stories would normally diffuse between 1,000 to 100,000 people. True stories regularly surpassed 1,000 people. False stories also took one-sixth of the time that true tweets took to reach 1,500 people.

Ruling Out the Usual Suspects

Before you go blaming AI developers for making bots a reality, you should know that the researchers ruled this and other popular theories for the spread of fake news out of the question. In the case of bots, researchers employed bot detection algorithms to root out any obvious offenders, then ran the data with and without them included. The general results remained the same. “Our results are contrary to some of the hype recently about how important bots are to the process,” says Sinan Aral, a co-author of the paper. “Not to say they aren’t important, but our research shows they aren’t the main driver.”

So, forget about bots. What about established networks or users propagating the lies? Strangely, the researchers found that false news spreaders on average had fewer followers, tweeted less frequently, joined more recently, followed fewer people, and were less likely to be verified.

Looking into other possibilities led to similar developments in the Boston-based group’s research: the usual reasons that one would assume causes fake news to spread often ended up being the complete opposite. And regardless of this, fake news continues to spread.

What’s the Real Reason?

“We have a very strong conclusion that the spread of falsity is outpacing the truth because human beings are more likely to retweet false than true news,” says Aral. This reason may seem unsatisfying, but when you think about it, it’s not really that preposterous of a conclusion.

Deb Roy, another co-author of the recently published paper, explains one of the group’s leading theories right now: “It’s well understood that there’s a bias to our sharing negative over positive news, and also a bias to sharing surprising over unsurprising news.”

Aral does continue to say that much more research is needed to make a definitive conclusion: “We’re really just scratching the surface of this. There’s been very little empirical large-scale evidence one way or the other about how false news spreads online, and we need a lot more of it.”

Regulations, changing incentives of social media platforms, and more meticulous vetting were all mentioned in the paper as possible solutions to fake news, but only more data will tell which is the best way to go. The researchers are releasing their data set for anyone to experiment with or verify their results. So, if you’ve got data science experience or an interest in illuminating the truth, what are you waiting for? The world needs you to tell it like it is!

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