On Twitter, false stories are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true ones. Here’s whyby Philip Ball / March 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
The problem with fake news isn’t just that there’s a lot of it around, but that it gets about more effectively than real news. That’s the conclusion of a new study published in Science that compares the way fake and true news spread on Twitter.
Social scientist Dean Eckles of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me that this study, by Sinan Aral (also at MIT, although Eckles wasn’t involved in the work) and colleagues, is “the most comprehensive descriptive account of true and false information spreading on social media that we have to date.” It is certainly a huge effort, using 126,000 stories spread in tweets by 3m users between 2006 and 2017. Twitter supplied the information to the research team.
For the gargantuan task of figuring out which items carried true as opposed to false information, Aral and colleagues crosschecked it against six reliable fact-checking websites, such as politifact.org and factcheck.org. There’s obviously a grey area of “true-ish” news, but the researchers used items where there was more than 95 per cent agreement between their sources on the veracity or otherwise.
They prefer not to call false stories “fake news” though. That term, they point out, has been pretty much devalued by certain politicians, most notably of course by United States President Donald Trump and his administration, who now routinely apply it to any reports that don’t suit their agenda.
The researchers found that, on average, false news spreads faster than truth on Twitter and has deeper penetration, reaching more people. If a news story reached 1,500 people, it did so six times faster if it was false than if it was true. The researchers’ analysis suggested that false stories were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true ones. These findings hold fast even when the team found ways of weeding out automated “bots” from among the Twitter users.