Viral Ideas:

The Science of Fake News

The amount of false news online is clearly increasing, with serious consequences. It can drive the misallocation of resources during terror attacks and natural disasters, the misalignment of business investments, and misinformed elections. Unfortunately, the scientific understanding of how and why false news spreads is currently based on ad hoc rather than large scale systematic analysis.

In one study, a research team at MIT analyzed all the fact-checked rumors, true and false, that spread on Twitter from 2006–2017 — some 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. The study found that false news spreads far more extensively than the truth, with false stories 70% more likely to be retweeted.

The study also overturns conventional wisdom about how false news spreads. Though recent congressional testimony has focused on the role of automated bots, this study concludes that human behavior contributes more than bots to the faster spread of falsity than truth on Twitter.

One explanation may be that false rumors are measurably more novel than true ones, but whether or not users perceived them as such is difficult to establish. In an effort to assess users’ perceptions, the study compared the emotional content of replies to 32,000 Twitter hashtags, using a list of about 140,000 English words and their associations with eight emotions: anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy and disgust. They found that false rumors inspired replies expressing greater surprise, and greater disgust, while the truth inspired replies that expressed greater sadness, anticipation, and trust.

These findings may illuminate additional factors beyond novelty that inspire people to share false news but more research is needed. For example, it may also be that people share news because it is surprising rather than because it is believed, which is an important difference. In any case, the study suggests that as well as curtailing robots, containment policies should also emphasize behavioral interventions such as labeling and incentives to dissuade the spread of misinformation.


Based on “The Science of fake news”and The spread of true and false news online,” March 9, 2018 issue of Science.

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