The term “fake news” means various things to various people: Misleading information, satire, biased sourcing or even something they don’t want to hear. However, when it comes to truly “fake” stories, as in those that have no foundation in fact, things don’t look good for people heading into the field of journalism.
A massive study by MIT researchers has found that fake stories spread at a rate of almost six times that of those based in fact. The study looked at 10 years of data on Twitter and found that people, not bots, were dominantly responsible for these results. In addition, the topic didn’t matter in regard to the quickness of the false news; topics like business, war, politics and science all fared equally poorly.
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.
The authors of the study also looked into WHY this tended to be the case on Twitter:
First, fake news seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the all the tweets that have appeared in a user’s timeline 60 days prior to their retweeting them, the team found.
Second, fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet. The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to the 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.
This kind of information, which multiple researchers reviewed and found to be worthy of support, is a bit depressing to people like us who constantly preach accuracy, fairness and clarity. It seems it’s a lot easier to become popular on social media if we were just willing to start every tweet off with “SHOCKING!” or “THIS SET OF LIES BY (fill in politician) WILL DISGUST YOU!” Since that’s not the kind of rodeo you all signed up for, consider these four things that will hopefully hearten you and show you ways to press back against this deluge of garbage:
Don’t try to be the cool kid: It is not easy to fight the urge to be at the center of a lot of attention, especially in a day and age where everything can be measured. How many followers you have, how many retweets you get and more can make social media seem like the set of “Mean Girls,” where everyone else is Regina George and you’re not even the Spelling Girl. The problem with that logic is that a) it’s not true and b) it turns out that truth-tellers actually get their due in social media, just not in such a loud and obnoxious way, according to the study:
Users who share accurate information have more followers, and send more tweets, than fake-news sharers. These fact-guided users have also been on Twitter for longer, and they are more likely to be verified. In short, the most trustworthy users can boast every obvious structural advantage that Twitter, either as a company or a community, can bestow on its best users.
Of course, the downside is that the fakers STILL get more penetration of the market and have their stuff take off much more quickly than do the truth-tellers, which is maddening to people involved in decent journalism. It can also be a situation in which, to quote the Atlantic “the thrill of novelty is too alluring, the titillation of disgust too difficult to transcend.”
That all might be true, but the one thing that isn’t clear from my initial reading is the degree to which the “root accounts” from which these bits of misinformation emerge remain valuable to readers. In other words, we know how many fake tweets there are but what we don’t know is if those people continue to send out false information over time and they remain sources for people. Or, to put it another way, do false news purveyors become like the little boy who cried wolf? Eventually, nobody cared what that kid said, even though it cost them all their sheep.
So, yeah, you won’t be cool for the moment, but how long does “cool” last these days anyway? Think about it this way: That kid in third grade who could belch the alphabet was the king of the school for about six weeks. What’s he doing now? Or as mom used to tell me, “The unpopular kids of today are the Lamborghini owners of tomorrow.”
Before you retweet, consider the source: Where information comes from is crucial in determining how much credence you should put into a story. Think about when you were in grade school and you heard some unbelievable story from “that one kid” on the playground who always was making stuff up. Chances are, you learned to stop believing him after you discovered that there wasn’t a pool on the roof of the gym and that there was no such thing as “No Pants Wednesday.”
However, when your teacher or the principal told you something, you tended to give it serious consideration. Apply the same basic rules when you are considering information you find online. “Who told you that?” should be one of the first questions you ask when you get information that doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. That also means finding out who told the person who is now telling you something. This will cut down on the number of people adding to the noise and help to keep your nose clean in terms of being a source of fake news.
Find the root of the rumor: Just because a quick Google search reveals dozens of stories on a given topic, it doesn’t always follow that the information is true. Some sites frequently cite one another and create an echo chamber of information that lacks external support. You want to find a variety of sources for any piece of information before you send it forward.
Look up the concept itself that the retweeter is putting forth in the message and see if it tracks with other things you can find online. Look to see how deep that “retweet” goes: Is this person tweeting information passed on by a source or by someone who retweeted someone else who is retweeting someone else and so forth. Don’t just hit the retweet button. Treat that rumor like a missile and consider your retweet a launch code. Make sure the Twitter freakout isn’t just a game of “Telephone” gone horribly wrong or the result of someone trusting someone else’s ticked off cousin who has nothing better to do than tweet while on house arrest.
If your mother says she loves you, go check it out (and encourage others to do the same): One of the best ways to avoid letting fake news trick you is to be a bit paranoid about every piece of information you receive. A few years back, a good friend posted online that the president of our alma mater had resigned under pressure. No link, no citation and no support with that line. I was about a second away from just sharing that when I thought, “You damned dummy. You’re doing exactly what you tell your students not to do.”
I hit him back with a “Where did you get this?” inquiry and he quickly responded that he was streaming the university’s board of trustees meeting live, which is how he knew this. He also noted, “I probably should have mentioned that.” Yeah, but now you did and now we both feel better about putting that information out for additional consumption.
The Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify,” should guide you through anything you read. Independently verify the information in a piece before you pass it along to others. In addition, poke back at people who are passing along info without decent supporting resources. Help the people with whom you interact learn how to dig into stuff or at least avoid hitting the “retweet” button like a rat hitting a feeder bar to get a food pellet. The more people we get to see things in a journalistic fashion, the better off we’re all going to be.