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False information travels much faster than the truth on Twitter

Falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth, new research has found.

The Twitter app
The Twitter app
Image: Richard James Mendoza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

FALSE INFORMATION SPREADS faster and reaches more people than the truth on Twitter, according to new research.

Researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a non-profit organisation, examined how verified true and false news stories spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017.

The data they analysed included in the region of 126,000 stories tweeted by three million people more than 4.5 million times. The stories were designated as true or false based on six independent fact-checking organisations.

In particular, they looked at the likelihood that a tweet would create a “cascade” of retweets. False information spread significantly further and faster than the truth across all categories of information, the researchers found.

Overall, falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. The top 1% of false information cascades routinely spread to between 1,000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely spread to more than 1,000 people.

Of the various types of false news, political content spread the quickest – at three times the rate of other false news topics. The report also found that “novel” information was more likely to be retweeted.

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.

Intelligence agencies in the US have accused Russia of helping spread fake news stories during the 2016 US presidential election with a view to helping Trump get elected, something the country has denied.

Emotional aspect

In assessing the emotional content of tweets, researchers found that false stories inspired fear, disgust and surprise in replies, whereas true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy and trust.

When the authors of the report used an algorithm to remove bots from their analysis, the results suggest that humans play a greater role than robots do in the dissemination of false information.

In a related study about fake news, carried out at Northeastern University in Boston, the authors highlighted the fact that people often prefer to believe and share information that supports their own preexisting views, exacerbating the problem.

To address the issue of false information, researchers have recommended that people be empowered to evaluate the fake news they encounter.

They also want structural changes that aim to prevent the spread of fake news, calling for an interdisciplinary research effort that involves various social media platforms.

Read: Trump blames Democrats and Obama for failing to stop Russian election meddling

Read: UK warns foreign states over Russian ex-spy’s suspected poisoning

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Órla Ryan

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