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Falsehoods travel faster and more broadly than truth

The Guardian reports a paper, published in the journal Science, in which MIT researchers describe an analysis of a vast amount of Twitter data: more than 125,000 stories, tweeted more than 4.5 million times in total, all categorised as being true or false by at least one of six independent fact-checking organisations. The findings make for unhappy reading.

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” they write, “and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information. Whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1,000 people, the top 1% of false-news cascades routinely diffused to between 1,000 and 100,000 people.” Further, “It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people, and 20 times as long as falsehood to reach a cascade depth of 10” – meaning that it was retweeted 10 times sequentially.

The researchers speculate that falsehoods spread so fast because they fulfil our desire for novelty. True news, hamstrung by the requirement that it has to have actually happened, is generally much alike, but fake stories can surprise and entertain with no limit. The scientists posit that, “When information is novel, it is not only surprising, but also more valuable, both from an information theoretic perspective [in that it provides the greatest aid to decision-making] and from a social perspective [in that it conveys social status on one who is ‘in the know’ or has access to unique ‘inside’ information].” Read more

  • Wednesday, 21 March 2018

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