Learning the News: New research proves lies spread faster than truth

New research from MIT proves ‘fake news’ travels faster than the real thing, writes Roger Plothow.

Research confirms that Jonathan Swift actually wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” (Forget about the claim that Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.” That quote first appeared in the public domain eight years after Twain died, which helps make my point.)

Anyone who pays attention already intuitively knows what three researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have proven: fake news travels more efficiently than the real thing.

Put another way, lies spread faster than truth.

The MIT folks researched Twitter from 2006 to 2017, tracking how quickly and broadly false information travels compared to accurate news. What they found isn’t surprising, but it’s scary nonetheless. They wrote:

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”

In their paper, published in Science magazine, Soroush Vosoghi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral also found that this can’t be blamed on “bots” – programs used by various interests, including Russian trolls and the like – to spread false information. No, it’s most commonly done one tweet and retweet at a time by regular folks. The MIT researchers say it better:

“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.”

This brings us back to a harsh reality – the proliferation of fake news won’t be stopped by algorithms or restrictive policies enacted by social media providers. The only fix is for information users to become critical thinkers and media literate. The likelihood of this happening on a large scale is miniscule.

Here’s one way to look at it, if you prefer your glass half full. If you are one of the people who insists on vetting your information and developing the media literacy skills required to avoid being fooled by fake news, you are going to have enormous power. You will be one of the minority making decisions based on reality instead of fantasy. You won’t waste time on nonsense.

Perhaps we should print t-shirts for people who can meet a certain level of media literacy so they can recognize each other at the mall and hang out a bit.

So, why does fake news spread more quickly than truth? It’s pretty simple, actually – it’s more interesting.

“We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information,” the paper states.

TV news has often relied on the axiom, “if it bleeds, it leads.” This is the social media equivalent. A thoughtful, properly nuanced story about the costs of healthcare just isn’t very sexy. But post something about the “dangers” of Obamacare and you’ve got an audience. Conspiracy theories are equally popular, because they create fear and anger.

Do you want a legitimate fright instead? Read this, from the final paragraph of the MIT paper:

“False news can drive the misallocation of resources during terror attacks and natural disasters, the misalignment of business investments, and misinformed elections. Unfortunately … the amount of false news online is clearly increasing …”


Roger Plothow is former editor and publisher of the Post Register and is now president of APG Signature Events, a division of Adams Publishing Group, owners of the Post Register, Idaho State Journal and other newspapers in southeast Idaho.


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