Rights & Money

False News Spreads Faster Than the Truth on Twitter

Twitter can be a great way to stay up-to-date…just don’t believe everything you read


By Katrina Caruso


A study of how news flows on Twitter seems to support the old adage: “A lie gets halfway around the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” (The line has been attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, but like a lot of things on social media, the attribution is wrong: it was around long before either man lived and its origin is unknown).

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that false news is at least 6 times more likely to circulate on Twitter than truthful news; it circulates faster and often has a broader reach. And while there’s been a lot of discussion lately about Russian bots (automated programs that can, among other things, re-tweet given messages) spreading lies, the study found that it’s humans who are largely to blame for most of the re-tweeting.

The MIT researchers looked at some 126,000 stories tweeted between 2006 and 2017 by roughly 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Defining false news as inaccurate information presented as true and opinion being offered as fact, they discovered that such stories were about 70% more likely than accurate stories to be reshared on Twitter. While accurate content typically reached 1,000 people—if that many—conspiracy theories, outright lies, rumours, photoshopped images, and misleading information often reached as many as 100,000 people easily.

Political stories got the most attention and spread three times faster than those on financial information, natural disasters, and even terrorism.

The findings were published in the journal Science.

What’s behind the results? The researchers suggested that false news stories “inspired fear, disgust, and surprise” and therefore get more of a reaction than the truth. People get swept away by shocking headlines and forget to think critically or to consider the source when they’re reading a story or looking at a photograph. The world of social media advertising likes best those stories that attract the most attention, and as one of the study’s co-authors was quoted as saying in a Scientific American article, “It’s easier to be novel and surprising when you’re not bound by reality.”

Photo: iStock.