Mind & Body

Fake News Spreads Way Faster Than Real News Online

There's a quote that's often attributed to Mark Twain: "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." Ironically enough, he probably never said it. But it just goes to show the adage is true, and so does a new study on fake news and social media.

Cascade of Lies

According to a 2018 study published in Science, false "news" spreads faster and more widely over social media than real news does. Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral of the MIT Media Lab looked at more than 10 years of tweets from 3 million users and tracked how different kinds of stories behaved in the Twittersphere. They did so by tracking how the tweets "cascaded," or spread to other corners of the internet via retweets and replies. Afterward, they'd rank how those stories did according to six independent fact-checking organizations, including Snopes and Politifact.

According to Nature News, are two ways a tweet can cascade. If a famous celebrity with a million followers shares it, it might be retweeted by 10,000 of their fans. Or it could be shared by a person with few followers, all of whom retweet it. Then those users' followers retweet it and their followers' followers retweet it until eventually, it gets to a crowd of 10,000. The first example, where a bunch of people share one person's tweet, is called a shallow cascade. The second, where the tweet is shared via a chain of thousands, is deep. And in the battle between real news and fake news, fake news dominates both varieties.

That's right, fake news consistently reaches a bigger audience than real news, and it tunnels deeper into social networks than real news does. That's even true when you factor out the bots whose only job is to spread fake news. Real news struggled to chain together 10 retweets, while fake news could easily amass a chain of 19 in a tenth of the time. So what is it about falsehoods that makes them so darn speedy?

Brain Bait

When you factor out the bots, it becomes clear that it really is human beings that cause fake news to spread — seriously, the bots actually show less of a preference for false stories than people do. And that suggests that the problem might just be our brains. But it's not as if we seek out lies in order to spread them. Even accurate stories that function well as propaganda, like this story about Trump allowing a sick boy to fly on one of his planes, don't spread as well as false stories that can serve the same purpose. To the researchers, that suggests that something intrinsic to falsehoods makes them spread more easily.

It basically comes down to two things: novelty and emotional charge. Accurate news tended to inspire sadness, joy, or trust, while fake news inspired feelings of anger, disgust, and fear. Those charged negative emotions? They spread like wildfire. And when you aren't constrained by the truth, you can make your headline as out-there as you can get away with — and that's a recipe for clickbait.

The good news is that other studies have found that an overwhelming majority of people get their news from legitimate sources, according to Nature News. It's also important to recognize that this study only tracks how headlines spread, not how trusted they are. After all, the retweeters might just be laughing at the tinfoil hat-wearing corners of the internet.

To arm yourself against misinformation, check out "The Truth Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks" by New York Times bestselling author Bruce Bartlett. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

How To Know If You're Getting Fake News

Written by Reuben Westmaas March 30, 2018

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