MIT scientist charts fake news reach

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"Twitter became our main source of news", explained Dr Vosoughi.

False news spreads far faster and wider on Twitter than the truth, according to a new academic study, which also suggests that people, not bots, are the prime culprits when it comes to the proliferation of misinformation. "We've got a lot of media reports and testimony in front of both houses of Congress talking about how important bots are in the spread of false news". While fake news was seen by between 1,000 and 100,000 people, the truth was rarely seen by more than 1,000 people. The study published Thursday is more wide-ranging: A team of researchers at MIT tracked falsehoods and truths using a database of every tweet written from 2006 to 2017. The stories were designated as true or false based on six independent fact-checking organisations.

But he offered some generalities about who propagates false news: A false rumour cascade was more likely to begin with a young, unverified account with a small number of followers. Similarly, the researchers identified common themes in the phrasing of replies to false rumours - users more frequently expressed words associated with disgust and surprise when they commented on untruths.

Unsurprisingly, political content was the most popular, and researchers noted spikes in the spread of false political rumours during both the 2012 and 2016 US presidential elections. Congress and the FBI are investigating evidence that Russian and other foreign users deliberately flooded social media with untrue reports and posts meant to mislead people about political candidates.

"No matter how you slice it, falsity wins out", said co-author Deb Roy, who runs MIT's Laboratory for Social Machines and is a former chief media scientist at Twitter. "We don't know of any other way to get a more rigorous data set", Aral said, than using independent fact-checkers that are almost unanimous.

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They said it could be because fake news tends to be "more novel".

Why do people fall for it, whether it's from a bot or a real friend? They concluded that falsehoods spread "farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information".

"People prefer information that confirms their preexisting attitudes, view information consistent with their preexisting beliefs as more persuasive than dissonant information (confirmation bias), and are inclined to accept information that pleases them", David Lazer of Northeastern University and colleagues wrote in an editorial.

On any given news item, the fact-checking organizations were in agreement between 95 and 98 per cent of the time. "Fact-checking might even be counterproductive under certain circumstances", they wrote. He compared on some of the facts how often and widely false stories were shared in against true news.

They call for more high-quality research into the false news problem and what can be done about it, pointing to reforms in the early 20th century that gave rise to legitimate newspapers with ethics promoting objectivity and credibility out of the ashes of a boisterous yellow press.