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Technology 21 March 2018

Fake News Spreads Fast, But Don’t Blame the Bots

Grant Gross
By Grant GrossTechnology Reporter

Fake news spreads much faster than real news, and real people – not bots – are to blame, according to a recent study.

Fake news – defined by the researchers as stories debunked by six major fact-checking services – can spread 10 times faster than legitimate news stories, according to the study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The researchers studied rumors spread on Twitter between the service’s launch in 2006 and 2017. While some U.S. lawmakers and other critics have blamed automated bots for the spread of fake news before the 2016 election, the MIT researchers filtered out tweets spread by bots for their study.

The researchers found that false news not only spread faster than true stories, but it also had a much wider reach, according to the study, published this month in Science. The top 1 percent of news “cascades” – the researchers’ word for widely spread tweets – reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people, while true information rarely reached more than 1,000 people.

“False news diffused significantly farther, faster, broader, deeper in every category of information,” study co-author Sinan Aral, a management professor at MIT, said during a recent Science podcast.

The research team broke down news into different categories – politics, business, natural disasters, etc. – and in all categories, false news spread farther and faster than true news, “and sometimes by an order of magnitude,” Aral added. False political news spread the fastest, however.

The team studied more than 4.5 million tweets in 126,000 news cascades. The researchers used two state-of-the-art bot detection services to filter out tweets spread by bots. The team found that bots do accelerate the spread of fake news, but they also accelerate the spread of true news at about the same rate, Aral said during the podcast.

“Bots cannot explain this massive difference between how fast and far and deeply and broadly false news spreads compared to the truth,” he said. “Human beings are responsible for that.”

The researchers didn’t investigate whether people spreading false news were doing it maliciously or because they believed it was true. They found that people spreading fake news generally had fewer followers and tweeted less often than those sharing legitimate news stories. So false news spread faster and farther even with the handicap of being trafficked by less experienced Twitter users.

People who spread fake news may do so because of its novelty and because they may gain status by sharing new information, Aral told Science. “Novel information is more valuable than information you already know,” he said.

“You need to have facts for society to work.” Read our interview with Wired Editor in Chief Nicholas Thompson on the changing role of media, then explore the 2017 Internet Society Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future and read the recommendations to ensure that humanity remains at the center of tomorrow’s Internet.

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