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I have not joined Twitter, as I find that emails, Facebook (to see my children and grandchildren's pictures and posts) and Yabberz, where there is more depth to many posts, are plenty of on-line action with which to be involved; after all, there is more to life than our computers, I-Pads and mobile phones. (I hope?)
But a scientific MIT study has confirmed what twitter posters may have known anyway, that what we used to call gossip, propaganda, or just plain hog wash, and are now called fakes, lies, and alternative facts, get a lot more attention, and travel faster than facts or truth. . .
It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when some intelligent observers of social media believed that Twitter was a “truth machine”—a system whose capacity for rapidly debunking falsehoods outweighed its propensity for spreading them. Whatever may have remained of that comforting sentiment can probably now be safely laid to rest.
A major new study published in the journal Science finds that false rumors on Twitter spread much more rapidly, on average, than those that turn out to be true. Interestingly, the study also finds that bots aren’t to blame for that discrepancy. People are.
The paper, authored by scholars at the MIT Media Lab, analyzed an enormous data set of 126,000 rumors that were spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, generating tweets from more than 3 million different accounts. Specifically, they looked at claims that were subsequently evaluated by major fact-checking organizations and found to be either true, false, or some combination of the two. They found that false rumors traveled “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” but especially politics. On average, it took true claims about six times as long as false claims to reach 1,500 people, with false political claims traveling even faster than false claims about other topics, such as science, business, and natural disasters.
That wasn’t because the people tweeting false news had more followers. On the contrary, the researchers found that the people spreading lies generally had smaller followings than those spreading the truth. The lies won the race anyway, suggesting there’s something inherent in Twitter falsehoods that makes them more prone to spread than truths.
This is fascinating and important research, even if its findings won’t exactly shock most people familiar with the workings of social media. The study appears to be the most careful and comprehensive of its kind, and the researchers report that their results stood up to all manner of robustness tests. It suggests that if companies such as Twitter and Facebook care about combating falsehoods, they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle not just against bad-faith actors intentionally disseminating lies, but also against human nature and the dynamics of their own platforms.
“Human” is a key word there, because the study makes it clear that automated accounts aren’t the ones driving the discrepancy. Sure, bots retweeted false news stories—but they did so at a rate commensurate with their amplification of true news stories. The authors found that lies spread faster than truths regardless of whether bots were included in the sample or systematically excluded from it.
What it shows, provided we accept its conclusions, is that the truth-falsehood gap arises from some combination of human nature and the nature of Twitter. There’s no guarantee that these findings would apply to some other platform. And there is plenty of reason (by now) to suspect that Twitter in particular lends itself to the rapid spread of falsehoods: It’s explicitly built to facilitate the rapid, public sharing of information, and does little to incentivize people to independently verify the information they’re retweeting. In fact, the study’s findings suggest you’re more likely to be rewarded on Twitter with piles of retweets for spreading lies than you are for spreading truths. (I wrote this week about the centrality of these metric rewards to the Twitter experience—and perhaps also to the platform’s biggest problems.)