It is said that a lie will travel around the world while the truth is pulling on its boots, and now scientists have proven that it is true.
The adage, variously attributed to Mark Twain and 19th century London preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeons, was coined way before the advent of social networks and 24 hour rolling news.
But a new study by MIT found that false stories spread far more rapidly on Twitter than genuine news, and also reach a much wider audience, a result which researchers describe as ‘very scary.’
An analysis of stories between 2006 and 2017 found that false news is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted over bona fide articles. It also takes true stories about six times longer to reach 1,500 people as it does for untrue reports.
Deb Roy, who served as Twitter’s chief media scientist from 2013 to 2017 and is now an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, said his team was ‘somewhere between surprised and stunned’ by the findings.
“These findings shed new light on fundamental aspects of our online communication ecosystem,” she said and advised people to: “think before you retweet.”
The researchers began the study after MIT’s Dr Soroush Vosoughi noticed a slew of false information on Twitter following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
Some tweets claimed an eight-year-old girl, who had been running in memory of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, was killed even though children are not allowed into the race.
Another story said a woman was blown up shortly before her boyfriend was due to propose.
“I realized that a good chunk of what I was reading on social media was rumors,” said Dr Vosoughi . “It was false news.”
To find out if false news was disseminated more quickly the team used Twitter’s archive to track around 126,000 cascades (or network trees) of real and fake news stories involving politics, urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment and natural disasters.
Fake new stories included a claim that boxer Floyd Mayweather wore a Muslim headscarf to a Donald Trump rally and that a Trump’s dead cousin used his obituary to urge people to vote against the president.
True stories included Michelle Obama’s claim that the White House was built by slaves and Hilary Clinton’s assertion that top hedge fund managers make more money than all kindergarten teachers combined.
The stories reached three million people and were retweeted about 4.5 million times.
Professor Sinan Aral, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management added: “We found that falsehood defuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude.”
The team were also surprised to find that the spread of false information is not due to ‘bots’ which are programmed to disseminate inaccurate stories, but are driven by humans ‘intrigued by novelty.’
“False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” added Professor Sinan Aral, of MIT’s Sloan School of management.
“On social networks, people can gain attention by being the first to share previously unknown – but possibly false – information. People who share novel information are seen as being in the know.”
The MIT scholars tested their ‘novelty hypothesis’ by taking a random sample of 25,000 tweets from 5,000 Twitter users who retweeted false stories, and analysed the content of the reactions to those stories.
“We saw a different emotional profile for false news and true news,” added Dr Vosoughi .
“People respond to false news more with surprise and disgust, whereas true stories produced replies more generally characterized by sadness, anticipation, and trust.”
The study shows that although some people are deliberately spreading false news, many are doing so unwittingly, suggesting the phenomenon is not simply driven by malicious intent.
“Behavioral interventions become even more important in our fight to stop the spread of false news,” added Prof Aral.