Research project finds humans, not robots, are primarily responsible for the spread of misleading information.

“As the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers.

And it often happens, that if a lie be believ´d only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it.

Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.”

The above quote was written by the poet and satirist Jonathan Swift in the British journal The Examiner in 1710, but it could arguably also apply to the deeply unpopular but oft-shared fake news articles we find in our social media feeds today.

Lies and half-truths have been around since the dawn of humankind. Honesty may well be the best policy, but scheming and dishonesty are part of what makes us human beings.

Two centuries after Swift wrote the above passage, methods for spreading such lies are much improved. In the first academic paper of its kind, published in Science magazine on March 8, MIT Media Lab researcher Soroush Vosoughi and his colleagues present evidence that, on Twitter at least, false stories travel both faster and further than true ones.

The study showed this by examining every tweet sent between 2006 and 2017. “We found that falsehood di uses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” says Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a paper detailing the findings.

The researchers used statistical models to classify tweets as false or true by applying data taken from six independent fact-checking organizations. This allowed them to categorize some 4.5 million tweets concerning 126,000 different news stories which were then ranked according to the way they spread among Twitter users.

The results were startling. True news stories took, on average, six times longer than fake ones to reach an audience of at least 1,500 people. Only about 0.1 percent of true stories were shared by more than 1,000 people, but 1 percent of false stories were shared up to between 1,000 and 100,000 times.

The reason false information spreads faster and further than the real thing is simple, say the researchers. News spreads across social networks according to its appeal to users, rather than its veracity. One way to make news appealing, for example, is to make it novel. Sure enough, when
the researchers checked
how novel a tweet was (by
comparing it statistically with
other tweets), they found false tweets were significantly more eye-catching than truthful ones.

Fake stories were also more likely to inspire emotions such as fear, disgust and surprise, whereas genuine ones provoked anticipation, joy, or trust, leading to the rather depressing conclusion that people prefer to share stories that generate strong negative reactions. Perhaps not coincidentally, fake political news was the most likely to go viral.

The researchers could conduct a study of the depth of the problem thanks to the business relationship between one of the members of their team, Deb Roy, and Twitter, which offered the researchers access to its entire historical dataset at a steep discount. But further studies are likely to follow in the coming years as tech companies, notably social media firms, face an ongoing backlash from both consumers and regulators worried about the harm caused by their networks.

The lesson for now, according to Roy, is that even well-meaning Twitter users might take heed in the phrase: “Think before you retweet.”