Another dot in the blogosphere?

Novelty spreads fake news

Posted on: March 27, 2018

My Twitter feed led me to one of the local rags, Today, which declared that “news” spreads faster and more widely when it’s false.

TODAY attributed the article to the New York Times, but it was actually an almost word-for-word copy of the report in the Nature journal. The report was based on a study published in the journal Science.
The TODAY paper wrongly attributed the source to the NYT. The article was a near copy of the one in Nature.

This was not fake news, but it was bad attribution. You can blame social media or any platform, but the fault lies in people making poor or bad decisions.

The Nature article was more reliable — it reports academic findings after all — and the numbers were scary:

the most popular true news stories rarely reached more than 1,000 people, whereas the top 1% of false news stories reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people. False news that reached 1,500 people did so six times faster than did true stories. And falsities were 70% more likely to be retweeted than truths…

This was true whether the fake news was generated and spread by bots or by people. Even when bots were removed from the equation, “fake news… still spread faster than truth, showing that this property stems from human behaviour”.

It is not the platform. It is the people and the decisions they make.

What motivates people to propagate what they do not read, fact-check, or understand? Novelty — it grabs attention and begs to be passed on. Novelty combined without a clear link to evidence or even a lack of evidence also seems to contribute to the rapid spread of fake news.

Again, it is not the platform. It is the people and the decisions they make. It is easy to retweet something interesting but unconfirmed; it takes more effort to fact-check and pour cold water on the spread.

Therein lies a possible prescriptive note to stemming fake news. For people to fact-check, they must access a source of information. So it is not enough to tweet information. The tweet must be accompanied with a primary source.

By the way, the New York Times had its own take on the Science article. Unlike TODAY, it did not misattribute and copy wholesale. It was more thorough in that it provided examples and graphs to illustrate spikes of fake news.

This reflection was brought to you by attribution to sources and links to articles. It is not fake news and therefore unlikely to spread.

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