Fake news, rumors, propaganda—the scourge of deliberate misinformation is a hot topic these days, as is the role social media plays in the rapid dissemination of these falsehoods. The speed and extent to which misinformation spreads on social media is an alarming phenomenon.
In a massive and first-of-its-kind study, Sinan Aral, co-lead of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and his colleagues Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy of the MIT Media Lab reveal the truth about false news. “The Spread of True and False News Online,” published last week in Science, analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. Fake news consistently reaches a larger audience, and it tunnels much deeper into social networks than real news does.
Until this study, few large-scale empirical investigations of the diffusion of false news or its social origins had existed. Their conclusions overturn conventional wisdom about how misinformation spreads, what causes it to spread so fast, and who or what is spreading it. The many truths the study reveals about false news and social media include:
- False news travels farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth online in all categories—including business, science and technology, entertainment, terrorism, war, and politics.
- The effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about any other topic.
- Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth, even when controlling for the account age, activity level, and number of followers/followees of the original tweeter, as well as whether the original tweeter was a verified user.
- The massive differences in how true and false news spreads on Twitter cannot be explained by the presence of bots. During the election, automated bots retweeted false news at the same rate that they retweeted accurate information. False news spreads more quickly than the truth because humans are more likely to spread it.
So how can we change this dynamic? Can we create a news ecosystem that values and promotes truth? The new study suggests that it will not be easy. Any platform that regularly amplifies engaging or provocative content runs the risk of amplifying fake news along with it.
“Social media seems to systematically amplify falsehood at the expense of the truth,” writes Robinson Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic and author of a recent article about the study. He concludes, “No one—neither experts nor politicians nor tech companies—knows how to reverse that trend.”
Watch The Truth About False News with Sinan Aral for a summary of the authors’ findings.
View the MIT IDE's Research Brief on the study.
Read Sinan Aral’s New York Times op-ed, “How Lies Spread Online.”