(March 9) Science today published the largest-ever longitudinal study of the spread of false news online. Three MIT researchers, Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy of the Media Lab and Sinan Aral of the Sloan School of Management, investigated all the true and false news stories verified by six independent fact checking organizations that were distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The researchers studied approximately 126K cascades on Twitter about contested news stories tweeted by 3 million people over 4.5M times. Until this study, few large-scale empirical investigations of the diffusion of false news or its social origins had existed.
The researchers found that false news travels farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth online in all categories. The effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study found that false news spreads more quickly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth, even when controlling for the account age, activity level and number of followers and followees of the original tweeter, as well as whether the original tweeter was a verified user.
Prior to this study, scientific studies of the spread of false news were limited to case studies of the diffusion of single stories or analyses of small, ad hoc samples. The findings from this groundbreaking study include:
- The amount of false news on Twitter is clearly increasing and spikes during key events, like the U.S. presidential elections of 2012 and 2016.
- While one might think that characteristics of the people spreading the news could explain why falsity travels with greater velocity than the truth, the data revealed the opposite. Users that spread false news had significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter, were "verified" significantly less often and had been on Twitter for significantly less time. Falsehood diffused further and faster despite these differences, not because of them.
- The data support a "novelty hypothesis." False news was more novel than the truth and people were more likely to share novel information.
- False rumors also inspired replies expressing greater surprise, corroborating the novelty hypothesis, and greater fear and disgust. The truth, on the other hand, inspired greater sadness, anticipation, joy and trust. These emotions, expressed in reply to falsehoods, may shed light on what inspires people to share false news.