False news spreads faster than truth online thanks to human nature

False news spreads faster than truth online thanks to human nature
From TechCrunch - March 8, 2018

The rapidity with which falsity travels has been proverbial for centuries: Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it, wrote Swift in 1710. Yet empirical verification of this common wisdom has been scarceto our chagrin these past few years as lies in seven-league boots outpace a hobbled truth on platforms seemingly bespoke for this lopsided race.

A comprehensive new study from MITlooks at a decade of tweets, and finds that not only is the truth slower to spread, but that the threat of bots and the natural network effects of social media are no excuse: were doing it to ourselves.

The study, published today in Science, looked at the trajectories of more than 100,000 news stories, independently verified or proven false, as they spread (or failed to) on Twitter. The conclusion, as summarized in the abstract: Falsehood diffused farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.

But read on before you blame Russia, non-chronological feeds, the election or any other easy out. The reason false news (a deliberate choice in nomenclature to keep it separate from the politically charged fake news) spreads so fast is a very human one.

We have a very strong conclusion that the spread of falsity is outpacing the truth because human beings are more likely to retweet false than true news, explained Sinan Aral, co-author of the paper.

Obviously we didnt get inside the heads of the people deciding to retweet or consume this information, he cautioned. Were really just scratching the surface of this. Theres been very little empirical large scale evidence one way or the other about how false news spreads online, and we need a lot more of it.

Still, the results are robust and fairly straightforward: people just seem to spread false news faster.

Its an unsatisfying answer, in a way, because people arent an algorithm or pricing model we can update, or a news outlet we can ignore. Theres no clear solution, the authors agreedbut thats no reason why we shouldnt look for one.

A decade of tweets

The study, which co-author Soroush Vosoughi pointed out was underway well before the current furor about fake news, worked like this.

The researchers took millions of tweets from 2006 to 2017 and sorted through them, finding any that related to one of 126,000 news stories that had been evaluated by at least one of six fact-checking organizations: Snopes, PolitiFact,, Truth or Fiction, Hoax Slayer and

They then looked at how those news stories were posted and retweeted using a series of measures, such as total tweets and retweets, time to reach a threshold of engagement, reach from the originating account and so on.

These patterns form cascades with different profiles: for instance, a fast-spreading rumor thats quickly snuffed out would have high breadth but little depth, and low virality.

The team compared the qualities of cascades from false news stories and true ones, and found that, with very few exceptions, false ones reached more people, sooner, and spread further.

And were not talking a few percentage points here. Some key quotes:

Every way that mattered, false report moved faster and reached more people, usually by multiples or orders of magnitude.


Before we go on to the reasons why and the researchers suggestions for remedies and future research, we should address some potential objections.

Maybe its just bots? Nope. The researchers ran bot-detection algorithms and carefully removed all obvious bots, studying their patterns separately, then testing the data with and without them present. The patterns remained. We did find that bots do spread false news at a slightly higher rate than true news, but the results still stood. Bots dont explain the difference, said Vosoughi.

Our results are contrary to some of the hype recently about how important bots are to the process, Aral said. Not to say they arent important, but our research shows they arent the main driver.

Maybe the fact-checking sites are just biased? No fact checker can be completely without bias, but these sites agreed on the veracity of stories more than 95 percent of the time. A systematic bias across half a dozen sites obsessed with objectivity and documentation begins to verge on conspiracy theory. Not convinced?

We were very conscious of the potential for selection bias from starting with the fact checking organizations, Aral said. So we created a second set of 13,000 stories that were fact checked independentlyall new stories. We ran that data and found very similar results.

Three MIT undergrads were the ones independently verifying the 13,000-story data set, agreeing on veracity over 90 percent of the time.

Maybe false news spreaders just have large, established networks? Quite the contrary. As the paper reads:

One might suspect that structural elements of the network or individual characteristics of the users involved in the cascades explain why falsity travels with greater velocity than the truth. Perhaps those who spread falsity followed more people, had more followers, tweeted more often, were more often verified users, or had been on Twitter longer. But when we compared users involved in true and false rumor cascades, we found that the opposite was true in every case.

So why does false news spread quicker?

What can we do about it?


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