Since the 2016 presidential election, it’s been clear that we have a huge problem with fake news on the internet. Now, researchers at MIT have discovered that fake news has the ability to spread faster than true news at an astonishing rate — and it’s mostly being spread by us, not by bots.
In a study published in Science on Thursday, researchers Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral assembled a dataset of around 126,000 news stories that were shared on Twitter collectively more than 4.5 million times. The researchers enlisted six different fact-checking institutions to classify these stories as either true, false, or mixed, and then traced how false news is distributed in the Twittersphere.
Their findings turned out to be pretty bleak. “When we analyzed the diffusion dynamics of true and false rumors, we found that falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” the study says.
Oddly, the researchers also discovered that the accounts responsible for the spread of fake news averaged fewer followers, fewer verifications, and less Twitter activity than those who spread true news — but it didn’t make a difference. “Falsehood diffused farther and faster than the truth despite these differences,” the study says. “It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.”
Recent media focus on Russian meddling and Twitter bots might lead one to believe that sophisticated bot networks are responsible for this epidemic. But the researchers actually found that the opposite was the case — using a bot-detection algorithm, they removed all the bots from their sample size before analyzing their data, and then repeated the process again with bots included. None of their main conclusions changed.
“This suggests that false news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” the study says.
Why Is False News so Pervasive? Novelty and Moral Outrage
One potential explanation for the persistence of false news is novelty. Novel information is valuable because it can provide new insights and because it carries social gravitas.
Another reason why false headlines spread so efficiently? Moral outrage. In unrelated research published in September 2017, Molly Crockett of Yale demonstrated that people are more likely to feel moral outrage online than in real life. Heightened feelings propel people to share, meaning that sensational news — like false news — is more likely to propagate.
Can Education Save Us from Ourselves?
If the internet is a perfect storm for untruth, how do we fix it? “We could attempt behavioral interventions like labeling or flagging news that is false, we could reduce the economic incentive to spread fake news by reducing its reach,” study author Sinan Aral told Inverse in an email. “We definitely need more research and more transparency and education for the public.”
But it’s important not to disrupt good parts of Twitter, too. “Twitter and other social media platforms amplify human behavior, the good and the bad,” fellow researcher Vosoughi added. “We need to design tools that heighten the good and dampen the bad.”
These potential solutions to the misinformation problem are backed up by a Policy Forum article also published in Science on Thursday. In the article, Northeastern Professor Of Computer and Information Science David M. Lazer and colleagues argue that addressing fake news requires a coordinated, multidisciplinary effort. They suggest focusing on two different ways to curtail fake news.
First, Lazer et al suggest that behavioral interventions might help. “Individuals tend not to question the credibility of information unless it violates their preconceptions or they are incentivized to do so,” the article says. Perhaps early education on how to recognize bad news could address this bias. However, more research is needed to determine if these efforts will be successful.
Is Fake News an Intractable Problem?
The other suggested means of curtailing misinformation is focusing on structural changes to online platforms. But extreme structural changes might be hard to implement. Twitter is ostensibly meant to exist as an open internet commons and any significant change could run the risk of undermining that.
There’s no easy solution for solving the misinformation problem. But if we want to blame someone for the proliferation of fake news, it might be good to start with some introspection.