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On Twitter, fake news spreads faster and further than real news — and bots aren't to blame

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

When any type of news claim spreads on Twitter, it becomes a "rumor."

The pattern by which a particular tweet spreads is a "rumor cascade." If a tweet is retweeted 10 times in an unbroken chain, it is a single cascade with a size of 10. If two people independently tweet the same piece of news and each of those tweets is retweeted five times in an unbroken chain, we have two rumor cascades, each of size five.

Vosoughi, Roy and Aral used this framework to map the spread of information on Twitter since it was creation in 2016 all the way through to last year.

For each cascade, the researchers determined the size (that is, the number of people involved in the cascade from start to finish), the depth (the number of retweets in a single, unbroken chain), the maximum breadth (the largest number of people who were part of the cascade at any depth), and the structural virality (a measure of the number of people who were responsible for helping a particular tweet spread). The more a rumor spreads, the more all four of these factors increase.

Then the trio were ready to start making comparisons. They weren't pretty.

Here's a sampling of what they found:

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--Tweets containing false news were typically retweeted by "many more people" than tweets containing true news.

--The time it took for a claim to reach 1,500 people on Twitter was about six times longer for true news than it was for false news.

--Rumor cascades based on true news "rarely" spread to more than 1,000 people. However, at least 1 percent of rumor cascades based on false news did this routinely.

--The researchers looked at the top 0.01 percent of true and false rumor cascades and found that the false ones "diffused eight hops deeper into the Twittersphere than the truth."


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