With the controversy in the media recently about the lack of reliability in news reported on social media networks like Twitter, many have wondered how to determine which influencers to trust. Twitter and Facebook have come under attack for allegedly promoting false information, and many believe that misleading advertising may have even had a notable effect on the 2016 United States Presidential Election
A team of researchers consisting of Deb Roby and Sinan Aral of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Soroush Vosoughi of the MIT Media Lab took a look at 126000 stories on Twitter that were tweeted by 3 million users more than 4.5 million times. The team took a look at data dating all the way back to 2006 when Twitter began, and followed trends all the way through 2017 – finding that fake news spread far more quickly than those that were assessed as truthful, and that the reach of these fake stories extended farther as well.
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Although the effect of fake news stories on Twitter was most pronounced for political topics, the trend held true for most any topic – driving home the fact that fake news inherently has the potential to influence in a variety of sectors, perhaps due to the reactions it causes in its viewers.
The researchers posit that the reasoning behind the faster spread of fake news is that these shocking articles tend to elicit reactions such as “fear, disgust, and surprise in replies.” Very often headlines of fake news articles will be intentionally misleading, going for “clickbait” or shock value over quality journalism. Many people fail to take a step back and look at the reliability of the sources, instead taking things at face value and spreading misinformation across social media.
In order to arrive at this conclusion regarding fake news, the MIT group ran tweets through six different fact-checking websites – including renowned debunking websites like Politifact and Snopes. 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. By conducting the research this way, the group was able to determine what was extremely likely to be fake news rather than an article that was only debunked by one or two websites.
After running the tweets through these six different websites, the team proceeded to take a look at the chance of a tweet to create a “cascade” of retweets – meaning a chain of sharing one after another that catapults a single news story across the whole of social media.
The evidence was conclusive: fake news stories are far more likely to have a “cascade” effect than those that are true.
According to Aral, fake news stories are shared “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly, in every category.” backing up that statement with a figure that these stories are a shocking 70 percent more likely to be passed around than those that are true.
While the majority of tweets studied didn’t go much farther than around 1000 people, the top 1 percent of tweets managed to reach an audience of up to 100000 users.
One surprising find from the study is that social media “influencers” and those with a huge following were far less likely to spread information. Instead, articles shared from smaller accounts on a grand scale were the culprit behind the spread of fake news across the social media platform.
Many have theorized that bot accounts were a large part of why this misinformation was spread, but the team insisted that “Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”
It turns out that while bots may be partly to blame for the spread of fake news across Twitter, we humans do an equally good job of spreading misinformation. The majority of these cases are likely from the uninformed rather than malicious, but this study just goes to show that fact-checking news articles before sharing them is in the best interest of keeping informed and accurate about current events.