On Twitter, Truths Are Continually Trounced by Falsehoods

By Carl Engelking | March 8, 2018 1:00 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Thomas Jefferson was quite clear in his belief that an informed citizenry formed the very foundation of a functioning democracy. If that’s the case, then the hive mind of Twitter is an indication that our democratic foundation may be crumbling.

It’s impossible engage in rational, productive discussions about the current state of affairs if people can’t sip from a mutual fount of objective truth—the sky is blue, the Earth is round. When we diverge from the truth, we can pay a high price. In 2013, for example, someone hacked the Associated Press Twitter account and falsely tweeted that Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 140 points and kicked off 4 minutes of panic on the trading floor. It was just another day on Twitter.

While Twitter has certainly expedited the transfer of information, it’s also a den of lies where truth is continually overshadowed by the allure of falsehoods, according to a new study published in Science from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Arl analyzed 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times between 2006 (Twitter’s inception) and 2017. They relied on six independent fact-checking organizations to verify whether a story was true or false. They found that lies spread faster, farther, deeper and more broadly than the truth—even when they factored out the influence of the bots. We only have ourselves to blame.

It may come as no surprise in the era of “fake news”, but false political stories were by far the most contagious falsehoods on the social media platform, easily outpacing false news about terrorism, science, natural disasters or urban legends. Indeed, their data showed a clear increase in the number of false political rumors between 2012 and 2016, coinciding with U.S. presidential elections, of course.

Falsehoods of any kind plunged deeper into the Twittersphere, were diffused more widely and reached more people than the truth. For example, it took truth six times as long as a falsehood to reach 1,500 people. Falsehoods were also 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth.

So what is it, exactly, that makes lies such viral content? One might intuitively think false news spreads because it’s coming from Twitter users with more followers, or from verified, influential users. But the opposite was the case. On average, those who spread false news had significantly fewer followers and weren’t as active on Twitter. The spread of false information is also driven by human behavior, as researchers accounted for the influence of bots in their analysis.

Researchers offered and tested one possible explanation: People are drawn to novelty, because new, unexpected information adds to our greater understanding of the world. When extraordinary, fantastical claims are made about an event, it’s simply boring to whip out Occam’s razor.

Indeed, researchers tested this claim by assessing the novelty of certain tweets, and then analyzed the sentiment of subsequent replies. Overall, they found that false rumors inspired replies expressing greater surprise, whereas true tweets inspired replies that were generally associated with sadness. Our bitter reality is just plain boring.

“Although we cannot claim that novelty causes retweets or that novelty is the only reason why false news is retweeted more often, we do find that false news is more novel and that novel information is more likely to be retweeted,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers hope that their work will inspire more academics to dig into the causes and consequences of the rapid distribution of false news, and perhaps discover ways to flag or contain outright falsehoods. In the meantime, you might want to close Twitter if you’re hunting for objective reflections of reality.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: computers
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    When you confront the Left with its own behavior, your risk your life.

    • Gerald Wonnacott

      When you confront the Right with its own behavior, you risk your life.

      • John Thompson

        Sounds like the only peaceful solution is amicable divorce.

        • Gerald Wonnacott

          Good point. Mostly I wanted to “tool” Al, he is insane!

          • John Thompson

            I am however being serious. I just can’t see the two sides ever coming together.
            I wish the country was as it was set out to be: very different states with very limited Federal power. Basically, you do whatever you want over in your state, it’s not my concern.
            But we became more centralized and one size fits all after the Civil War and the New Deal.
            If I ran my best friends life, we probably would not remain friends for long.
            When states were different, you could move to where the Gov’t suits you best. Now with so much decided at the Federal level – it’s one side’s way or the other side’s way – that’s a recipe for discontentment.
            Or maybe it’s just the nature of Gov’t that grows in size and scope – the more it does the more there is to fight over.
            Sadly I just don’t see the sides coming together when they are so diametrically opposed to each other.

  • Scott S.

    Research, mine and that of my partner in which we model how the brain determines strength of relationship through emotions, show that the single biggest determinent of validity of shared information is the strength of relationshp between sender and receiver. Information shared in weak relationships whose information is correct is discounted or discarded. False information shared between parties with strong relationships is embraced as true. Further research shows that the labels conservative and liberal are outmoded. The mental dynamic is in problem solving. We have 2 modes of problem solving in order of DNA encoded priority: 1) individually, 2) collectively. This is the dynamic that the above study is capturing. Those biased to solve problems individually do not consult others for opinion, rather they seek multiple information sources and are prone to verify information before acceptance as part of their problem solving methodology. Those biased to solve problems collectively rely more upon the strength of relationship rather than the verified accuracy of information in determining information accuracy. So those of the collective problem bias are prone to accept the facts/opinions of those of the collective over those who who are not of the collective, like individual problem solvers (often labeled as conservatives). You must understand the above research is poorly designed in that it has poor sample control and thus negilible research value. The sampling occurs only within social media. By definition, social media is collective. Thus the study’s authors are only describing communication patterns within those biased for collective problem solving.

    • SpiderJon

      Hi Scott. That’s certainly a valid observation – the sample is obviously inherently self-selecting for “social” people. But the way in which they deal with “true” and “false” information is still something worth analysing.

      Re: “Research, mine and that of my partner…” sounds interesting – could you provide citations/links? Thanks.

  • John Thompson

    The sky is not always blue, at night it’s usually called black – the Earth has jagged mountains on it so it’s not precisely round.
    Right off the bat one person’s “truth” can be another person’s “lie”, or at least it’s debatable.
    The hypocrisy and bias that is common means you can’t trust any source.
    Ask a question like “Did Russia or The NY Times have more influence on manipulating the last election?” and the responses will nearly always come down to the politics of the person answering.
    Any answer will be called fake by the other side.
    I think it’s the MSM that is mostly concerned that people don’t trust them that drives the talk about fake news.
    They want to try to make a line where they are on the ‘truth” side, but the biases in their presentation make that a very blurry line.
    Parents understand how their kid doesn’t have to specifically lie to you in order to deceive you.
    You may notice that the MSM is not and was not ever concerned with “Deceptive News”, because that one hits way too close to home.
    In my view the problem is much more the deceptive news than the obviously fake news. It’s far easier to spot fake news than deception – so that makes deceptive news worse.

  • stargene

    This piece, like most others elsewhere, makes the hidden assumption that we are dealing with a completely natural phenomenon, absent any other process. The far right’s deliberate erection of the various incarnations of the infamous Southern Strategy is modestly ignored. While the Republican leadership famously apologized to the NAACP and other injured groups for it, the damage has been done…as one of its original Young Republican architects wrote in a mea culpa during the 2nd Bush administration, “We created a monster.” There is a reason so many feel entitled to make their own prejudices ‘logical’ and immune to fact.

    • John Thompson

      The problem with that statement is the Southern Strategy wasn’t based on lies, but simply truths that some people find offensive.
      So I don’t see it applying in terms of “fake news”.
      Crime statistics, work statistics, family dysfunction, educational attainment and other metrics may show blacks in an abhorrent light, but that’s not fake news, it’s derived from accepted Gov’t and scientific study statistics.
      FBI statistics for example show that 12.7% of the population commits over 49% of the murders.
      That results in a murder rate 5.5 times that of all other Americans.
      Using that accurate statistic to motivate voters is not using “fake news” to motivate them.
      Again, it will offend some people just to hear those Gov’t statistics, but isn’t that like when some Christians were offended by teaching evolution in public schools?
      Your complaint amounts to not liking a group using a truth for political ends.
      That’s not at all like using a lie or something fake for those political ends, even if some find it offensive.

      • Dale Willits

        People use these statistics to justify racism, but when you look past the numbers you find that racism caused the statistics.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar