Is Fake News Our Fault Rather Than Bots?

Fake news is a topic I’ve touched on frequently over the last few years.  Much of the blame for the spread of fake news is placed on bots that manipulate the agenda, or social networks that help to propagate misinformation.  A recent study from MIT suggests that we should also take our share of the blame.  It found that not only does false news spread much faster than real news on Twitter, but it does so because of real people sharing inaccurate news items.

“When we removed all of the bots in our dataset, [the] differences between the spread of false and true news stood,” the authors say.

Indeed, it found that fake news stories were 70% more likely to be shared than true stories.  In hard numbers, this means that true stories take around six times as long to reach 1,500 people than fake stories.

Delving into fake news

The researchers focused their attention on tweets surrounding the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, before then expanding the work to examine a range of other stories that had been identified as true or false over a four year period to 2017.

In total, they analyzed over 126,000 stories, which had been collectively tweeted 4.5 million times by 3 million different people.  They cross-referenced each story with six fact-checking websites, with all six agreeing on the classification around 95% of the time.

It’s perhaps not surprising that politics was the biggest topic covered by the various fake news stories, with the authors proposing an interesting psychology at play in our willingness to spread fake news.

“False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” they say.

Being in the know

By being the first to spread the previously unknown information, we also gain a certain cachet as being ‘in the know’.  They explored this novelty hypothesis by selecting a random sample of Twitter users who were found to regularly spread fake news.  The team analyzed the reaction each share generated from their followers.

The analysis revealed a distinct emotional profile for those who share true stories and those who share fake ones.  The response to fake news was typically surprise and disgust, whereas true stories elicited sadness, anticipation and trust.

They believe this sense of novelty encourages people to spread the news on, which in turn encourages the originators to hunt out similar stories.

Suffice to say, there have been numerous investigations into fake news and how it can be stopped, but this is one of the first studies to explore things from the users perspective.  Whilst their work doesn’t provide any recommendations itself, they hope that the insight that humans play just as big a role, if not more so, than bots will help to direct our energies in the right places.

“Now behavioral interventions become even more important in our fight to stop the spread of false news,” they suggest. “Whereas if it were just bots, we would need a technological solution.”

Hopefully it’s a topic that will continue to be examined to explore just what those behavioral interventions might look like.  For now though, they simply urge people to think before they retweet, which is a decent enough place to start.

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