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Why Lies Beat The Truth On Social Media

There’s more bad news on the “fake news” front.

It seems lies are more viral than truth – at least on Twitter. That’s the conclusion of a study recently published in Science magazine. Conducted by the MIT Media Lab, it was unprecedented in scope, analyzing 126,000 distinct “rumor cascades” that spread on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The depressing conclusion of the study was summarized in The Atlantic.

“…the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominates the truth on Twitter, the study finds: Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.”

It’s not just your imagination. There really are more tweets about Qanon, false flag attacks, and lizard people, apparently. The researchers found that lies are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth, even when controlling for the age of the account, its activity, following, and whether or not it is verified.

The study dealt only with what it calls “contested news,” or items that could be fact-checked. This means that the researchers didn’t include information that didn’t need to be fact-checked because it’s demonstrably true, like tweets reporting the election of the president, or the first day of spring. But the results are still troubling for anyone who cares about objective truth.

PR people, journalists, and everyday news consumers worry about the integrity of the news that reaches us, especially on social platforms. Honest mistakes aside, the spread of deliberate disinformation as propaganda or slander is insidious and harmful. It pollutes our media just as surely as toxic smoke poisons the atmosphere.

Why is false news so shareable?

Most striking were the factors that do not explain the virality of false information. We might assume that spreaders of false news are more active than others on social media. Yet the study showed that those who shared false items had fewer followers, followed fewer people, and were less active on Twitter than others. Lies traveled farther and faster than truth “despite these differences, not because of them.”

Well, what about bots, you may ask? As an active Twitter user who operates an alt account to tweet freely about politics, I’ve been long convinced that the armies of automated accounts (and paid human-operated ones) are behind the fake news crisis. Yet, bots weren’t a major factor in the more rapid spread of false information. When bots were involved, the study showed, they hastened the dissemination of all types of news, promoting both true and false items roughly equally. The study’s authors explained that “false news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

If we can’t blame bots or super-users, how can the power of false news be explained? The key factor seems to be what the study authors term “novelty.” Lies tend to be more novel — surprising, interesting or unusual — than facts, and it’s those items that are more likely to be shared. This is something most professional communicators known instinctively; the more novel the story, the more memorable, persuasive, and shareable it is.

What we can do about misinformation

Governments around the world are grappling with false news through legal and legislative means and social media giants feel the pressure to contain the malignant virality of false content. So far, Facebook has struggled in its response to the crisis. It seems to want it both ways — pledging to root out intentional disinformation while giving many publishers who spread untruths the benefit of the doubt.

Closer to home, the PR Council has formed a partnership with the News Literacy Project to raise awareness and improve understanding of the fake news factor and its ripple effect. The NLP runs programs that offer students in grades 6 through 12 tools and information to distinguish fact from fiction. It’s an excellent initiative and one that we can all support. There are also steps that professionals can take in our everyday work lives, outlined here.

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