Three researchers associated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology — Soroush Vasoughi and Deb Roy of the Media Lab, and Sinan Aral of Sloan School of Management — came together to study how true and false news spread in social media. The interest, the authors say, was born after two of the researchers “experienced the impact of the spread of rumours” immediately after the bomb explosions that killed three people at the Boston Marathon in 2013.
What does the research show?
In short, false news travels faster, wider, and more deeply compared to true news on social media. Also, the flow of false news is not enhanced by automated fake profiles called bots. In fact, people push false news more. The study shows that false news is 70% more likely to be retweeted compared to true news.
Is false news same as fake news?
The authors made a conscious choice to eschew the term “fake news”, using “true” or “false” news instead. “Although the term “fake news” implies a willful distortion of the truth, we do not make any claims about the intent of the purveyors of the information,” the authors say in their research paper.
So, what kind of news is studied?
The research takes into account nearly 1,26,000 “stories”, which were tweeted by nearly three million people over 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017. All these “stories” that the research focused on were verified as true or false by six independent fact-checking websites.
What qualifies as news in the study?
“We define news as any story… with an assertion in it and a rumour as the social phenomena of a news story,” the authors say in the study. This means that any assertion made that was verified as true or false by the six fact-checking sites was considered as “news”.
Does rumours travel faster and wider on Twitter than other media?
Not sure. The study does not take into account news not verified by the fact-checking sites. This means that news published by traditional news organisations that were not contested was not considered. Responding to an email from The Indian Express, Roy said, “our study was limited to… ‘contested news stories’ where ‘contested’ means they garnered attention from one or more of the fact check websites.”
Can rumours be exaggerated using bots?
When bot activity was analysed, it was found that false news travelled faster and wider without bots. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” the paper noted.
Why is false news more viral?
The research say that users tend to share “novel” information more, and false news is more novel than true news.
Do individuals with a large following on social media spread more false news?
Counter-intuitively, this is not true. According to the research, users who spread false news had significantly fewer followers, followed fewer people, were less active, and had been on Twitter for less time, compared to users who spread true news.
Does it have any political ramifications?
The research shows that “false political news travelled deeper and more broadly…, than any other category of false information”. False political news, the study notes, also travelled deeper more quickly than other false news, reaching more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people. As more people get on to different social media platforms, the easy virality of false political news can have political implications.
How can the spread of false political news be checked?
In his email, Roy said that the communication ecosystem requires some new forms of “self-regulation”. He, however, added that the answer did not completely lie in state regulation, “since the state tends to be ill-equipped with the appropriate instruments for regulation of such fast moving phenomena”.
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The Indian scenario
In India, WhatsApp is a major platform for the exchange of both true and false news. But compared to Twitter, WhatsApp is a private messaging service. Deb Roy, one of the authors, said, “I think private messaging networks like WhatsApp also impacts the flow of news. In essence, all such media amplify word of mouth and we, of course, share news via word of mouth.”