The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that 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 seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013 and who led this study. “And that is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.”
The study has already prompted alarm from social scientists. “We must redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century,” write a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars in an essay also published Thursday in Science. They call for a new drive of interdisciplinary research “to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies it has revealed.”
“How can we create a news ecosystem … that values and promotes truth?” they ask.
The new study suggests that it will not be easy. Though Vosoughi and his colleagues only focus on Twitter—the study was conducted using exclusive data that the company made available to MIT—their work has implications for Facebook, YouTube, and every major social network. Any platform that regularly amplifies engaging or provocative content runs the risk of amplifying fake news along with it.
Though the study is written in the clinical language of statistics, it offers a methodical indictment of the accuracy of information that spreads on these platforms. A false story is much more likely to go viral than a real story, the authors find. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject—including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment—fake news about politics regularly does best.
Twitter users seem almost to prefer sharing falsehoods. Even when the researchers controlled for every difference between the accounts originating rumors—like whether that person had more followers or was verified—falsehoods were still 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.
And blame for this problem cannot be laid with our robotic brethren. From 2006 to 2016, Twitter bots amplified true stories as much as they amplified false ones, the study found. Fake news prospers, the authors write, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”
Political scientists and social-media researchers largely praised the study, saying it gave the broadest and most rigorous look so far into the scale of the fake-news problem on social networks, though some disputed its findings about bots and questioned its definition of news.
“This is a really interesting and impressive study, and the results around how demonstrably untrue assertions spread faster and wider than demonstrable true ones do, within the sample, seem very robust, consistent, and well supported,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor of political communication at the University of Oxford, in an email.
“I think it’s very careful, important work,” Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, told me. “It’s excellent research of the sort that we need more of.”
“In short, I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt the study’s results,” said Rebekah Tromble, a professor of political science at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in an email.
What makes this study different? In the past, researchers have looked into the problem of falsehoods spreading online. They’ve often focused on rumors around singular events, like the speculation that preceded the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 or the rumors that followed the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
This new paper takes a far grander scale, looking at nearly the entire lifespan of Twitter: every piece of controversial news that propagated on the service from September 2006 to December 2016. But to do that, Vosoughi and his colleagues had to answer a more preliminary question first: What is truth? And how do we know?