Fake news spreads much faster on Twitter than true news, study finds

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A trio of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have concluded that fake news travels at a markedly faster rate on Twitter than accurate information, in a wide-ranging study published Thursday in Science magazine.

"I was very surprised by the results," Sinan Aral, who co-authored the study with Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy, told CNN. "Not the result that false news travels faster than true news, but in the magnitude of the difference."

The study, which Aral said took about two years to complete, found that it took true news stories about six times longer to reach 1,500 people on Twitter than stories that were false. False stories, the study said, "diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information."

"I find it disturbing," said Aral, who said he has been studying the impact of social media on society for more than 10 years. "All of the potential consequences of our society being consumed by falsity. In terms of responses to terrorism, responses to national disasters, the impact on our national economy. I think the potential for negative consequences in those areas are very real."

The researchers examined thousands of stories disseminated on Twitter and trillions of tweets between the years 2006 and 2017. They relied on six fact-checking organizations to determine whether a story was true or false. While the researchers limited the study's scope to Twitter, Aral said his "strong intuition" is that its findings extend to other forms of social media.

One particular category of false news that "traveled deeper and more broadly" than other types of stories, researchers said, was those about politics. The study showed that false politics stories were "more viral than any other category of false information," reaching 20,000 people three times faster than the other types of information reached 10,000 people.

A surprising twist in the study was that bots spread fake news at the same rate as true news, suggesting, "False news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it."

"This was one of the two surprising findings," Aral said, noting the other unexpected finding was the sheer speed in which false news stories spread faster than true news stories.

That said, the study did find that the types of individuals spreading fake news were not high-profile Twitter users. The research said these people had less followers and were verified by Twitter "significantly less" than those sharing accurate information.

Aral told CNN that this all points to the fact that "behavioral interventions" might be part of the solution to combating fake news. He said labeling news sources, similar to how food is accompanied by a nutrition label that explains how it is made and what is in it, might "reduce the spread of fake news online." He also said removing the economic incentive of publishing fake news by weeding them out using algorithms, as Facebook has started to do, could be helpful.

Whatever the solution, the researchers noted it's imperative the problem be solved.

"Understanding how false news spreads is the first step toward containing it," the three researchers wrote in their report. "We hope our work inspires more large-scale research into the causes and consequences of the spread of false news as well as its potential cures."


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