Fake news spreads ‘faster, deeper’ than truth

Likes for lies: Four tweets containing fake news and false information from the last five years.

Is human nature to blame? A new study tracked the spread of falsehoods on Twitter and found that they are 70% more likely to be retweeted than truth. Why? Because lies are more surprising…

It all started in 2013, long before “fake news” became Collins Dictionary’s word of the year, or the preferred insult of the US president. Boston was reeling from two bombs which had exploded near the finish line of the city’s annual marathon. Four days later, millions were on lockdown in the city as police hunted the culprits. Among those stuck indoors were two data scientists from MIT.

Twitter was their lifeline, and conspiracy theories were rife. “We heard a lot of things that were not true, and we heard a lot of things that did turn out to be true”, said Deb Roy. When he returned to work, his PhD student, Soroush Vosoughi, decided to switch the focus of his research to false information online.

Five years on, fake news has become a global concern — and now Vosoughi has published the biggest ever study of how it spreads.

His paper looks at 126,000 contested stories on Twitter, which were retweeted 4.5 million times over 10 years. It concludes that falsehoods spread “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories”. In fact, false stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted, and it takes 20 times as long for a truth to be retweeted 10 times than a lie.

Much of the recent conversation about fake news has focused on bots, yet Vosoughi found that they had very little impact. When bots were added or removed from the analysis, the results barely changed. Instead, the phenomenon “might have something to do with human nature”, he said.

There are some caveats: the study is limited to Twitter, and based on stories that had been analysed by independent fact checking sites. Those sites do not check large, demonstrably true stories, such as Barack Obama winning the 2012 election.

Still, its findings fit with other theories about fake news by psychologists and communication experts. False stories tend to be more surprising, negative and emotional than truth. These things all make people more likely to share them.

So is human nature to blame?

Faking it

Yes, say some. People have been spreading false news for centuries. It was used against a Byzantine emperor in the sixth century, and Marie Antoinette in the 18th. Humans are wired to pay attention to new and negative threats, explained one professor, and “it’s all too easy to create both when you’re not bound by the limitations of reality”.

Social media is making things far worse, argue others, and that’s something new. When surveyed, most people say that the truth is important to them, even if it’s less likely to go viral. But sites like Twitter profit from content that is widely shared. As long as that is true, fake news will always do well. Change social media, and fake news will fade.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever fallen for a fake news story online?
  2. Is fake news an inevitable part of human nature? Or something we can learn to combat?


  1. Split the class in two. Students in one half will each write down a true news story. The others should make up a completely false news story, write it down and submit it. As the teacher reads them out at random, students should raise their hand if they would be likely to share the story online. Then discuss: Were the most popular stories true or false?
  2. Using your own research and the links under Become An Expert, create a guide to spotting fake news, aimed at your fellow students. This can be in the form of a poster, video or essay.

Some People Say...

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to the study’s authors, fake news does well “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it”. Part of the study also involved analysing the emotions that the 126,000 tweets elicited from readers. Fake news tended to lead to “surprise and disgust”, while truthful stories were associated with “sadness and trust”. This may be why the former is more popular.
What do we not know?
Whether social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can be changed to reduce the spread of fake news. The study found that fake news from unverified accounts with small numbers of followers can spread faster than true news from verified sources with large followings. This suggests that safeguards like the blue tick system may not help the problem.

Word Watch

Two bombs
The attack killed three people. Many more were injured, including 16 who lost limbs.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Biggest ever study
Published in Science magazine last Thursday.
All categories
These included business, terrorism, science and entertainment. However, the effects were most strongly seen in political stories.
Fake social media accounts pretending to be real people.
In 2012, the President Barack Obama’s tweet, “Four more years”, briefly became the most retweeted of all time.
Byzantine emperor
More specifically, Emperor Justinian. The sixth-century historian Procopius wrote well of him in public, but undermined him with anonymous and dubious information.
Marie Antoinette
In 18th-century France, vicious “libelles” were written about the royal family, including the Queen. Some historians think they helped contribute to the French Revolution.
Most people
For example, according to a recent PBS survey, 76% of Americans disagree with the statement, “Truth is overrated, lying is the American way”.

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