Fake news 'travels faster', study finds

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The researchers also settled on the term "false news" as their object of study, as distinct from the now ubiquitous term "fake news", which involves multiple broad meanings.

The term "fake news" has in recent times become part of the lexicon of many people, thanks in part to US President Donald Trump regularly using it - often when referring to reports that are accurate but critical of him or his administration.

For instance, the true news-related tweets rarely reached over 1,000 people.

In further analysis of the data, the researchers took out information spread by automated social media accounts, or "bots", and found that the findings still stood when these programmed accounts were removed.

"Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information".

"False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information", says Aral, who is the David Austin Professor of Management.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at more than 126,000 stories tweeted millions of times between 2006 and the end of 2016 - before Donald Trump took office but during the combative presidential campaign. In contrast, the top 1 percent of tweets carrying false news routinely spread from between 1,000 to 100,000 people. Responses to fake news were usually characterized by "surprise and disgust", while real news was responded to with "sadness, anticipation, and trust". On the other hand, humans seem to have an inclination for sharing false news rather than facts.

News was not limited to mainstream sources, but broadly defined as any "asserted claim" containing text, photos, or links to information that had been evaluated by one of six independent fact-checking groups. "People who share novel information are seen as being in the know", he added. Twitter provided support for the research and granted the MIT team full access to its historical archives. They believe people retweet stories online they find new and different from other commonly shared items on their feed.

"I am not saying that bots are not a problem".

Read the full text of "The spread of true and false news online" at Science Mag here. But the scholars agree it is important to think about ways to limit the spread of misinformation, and they hope their result will encourage more research on the subject.

Rather, "contrary to conventional wisdom", they write, bots accelerated the spread of both false news and true news - but did so at about the same rate. But we will have to look at the other side of the coin too, not only bots have played a major role in the activity, humans have played an equal role.

Gordon Pennycook, a Yale University psychology post-doc who contributed to an article accompanying the study, said Twitter's and Facebook's capacity to spread rumors is built into its DNA.

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