A study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published in Science, shows that false news spreads significantly faster and wider than true news on Twitter. Social media and insta-messaging services have become tools to spread false information. Bots programmed to retweet are often blamed for amplifying the reach of fake news (the MIT researchers, though, deliberately don’t use the term ‘fake news’, given its political connotations in the US). However, the study shows that humans, and how they respond to the nature of information received, power the wide reach of fake news. The findings offer crucial insights for policy-makers and tech companies in the fight against fake news.
With full access to Twitter archives, the researchers studied roughly 126,000 cascades or uninterrupted tweet chains of news stories—these had been cumulatively tweeted over 4.5 million times by over 3 million Twitter users, between 2006 and 2017. The study found that truth seldom reached more than 1,000 people while the top 1% of false-news cascades routinely reached anywhere between 1,000 and 1 lakh people. False news stories were also 70% likelier to be retweeted compared to true stories. True news took six times as long to reach 1,500 people as false stories did.
False stories, the study says, evoked greater expression of surprise and disgust, while true stories evoked greater sadness, anticipation and trust. This can be a starting point for further research on why humans are more likely to spread news that they are disgusted by than those that stoke empathy. The fact that bots are not the problem queers the pitch. Curbing online rumour-mongering, thus, will have to rely less on the technological solutions social media giants have been arming themselves with than on socio-psychological solutions.
Multi-ethnic, pluralistic nations will likely be at the greatest risk. Perhaps, their governments should actively monitor fake news, both online and offline, and rebut these with fact-checking and accurate information. Whether governments, which are also political entities, can do this objectively is another matter.