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If it seems like false news stories spread faster and farther than factual ones, you’re not imagining things.
The latest issue of Science includes a study conducted by MIT debunking how far false news can spread online—as well as who’s doing the sharing. The study’s authors documented approximately 3 million Twitter users who spread 126,000 rumors from 2006 to 2017. The unsurprising results: “False news reached more people than the truth,” the study authors wrote.
However, more surprisingly, was the reach of each type of news. The top 1 percent of false news stories could reach between 1,000 and 100,000 people. The truth, conversely, hardly ever spread to more than 1,000 people.
In general, false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true ones. And to reach 1,500 people, it takes true stories six times as long as it does for false stories to spread. Interestingly, humans are to blame for the spread of these falsehoods—not Twitter bots.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it,” the study’s authors wrote.
One compelling reason for the discrepancy is that fake news is typically juicier and more interesting than the truth.
To combat the spread of incorrect news stories, social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter have tried a variety of different techniques—but some only made the problem worse. Just after the new year, Facebook announced that it was refining the focus of its platform, making sure time on the network is time well spent. To that end, Facebook planned to downplay news and video posts in your feed, and promote other types of posts that foster interaction among friends and family. Twitter, meanwhile, put out a plea for experts to help it assess the health of its social network.
While social networks continue to figure out how to best grapple with this problem, the best thing we can do is to use common sense and good judgment before retweeting or re-sharing things. Don’t just share a headline because it seems shocking—actually read the full story for yourself and double-check that the source is reputable.
Since we can’t blame bots for our current predicament, we’ve got to start taking better ownership of our own actions on social media.
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.