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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

--False news was also more likely to be "viral." So not only were the retweet chains longer, but they were more likely to branch off into new chains.

--The time it took for a rumor cascade to achieve a depth of 10 was about 20 times longer for true news than it was for false news. Also, the time it took for a true rumor cascade to reach a depth of 10 was nearly 10 times longer than the time it took for a false rumor cascade to reach a depth of 19.

--Rumor cascades about politics outnumbered those of all other topics. Coming in second were cascades about urban legends, followed by ones about business, terrorism, science, entertainment and natural disasters. The news that ultimately spread to the most people concerned politics, urban legends and science.

--False news about politics spread to 20,000 people almost three times more quickly than any other kind of false news was able to reach just 10,000 people.

--Compared with people who spread true news, those who spread false news were newer to Twitter, had fewer followers, followed fewer people and were less active with the social media platform.

What makes false news so much more enticing than true news? The researchers believe the answer is that false news has more novelty, which makes it both more surprising and more valuable -- and thus, more likely to be retweeted.

They figured this out by studying a random selection of about 25,000 tweets seen by 5,000 people and comparing their content to the other tweets those people would have seen in the previous 60 days. They also examined the emotional content of replies to these tweets and found that false tweets prompted greater feelings of surprise and disgust. (True tweets, on the other hand, generated replies expressing sadness and trust.)

The three researchers made a separate map that excluded all of the fake Twitter accounts they could identify with a bot-detection algorithm. Removing rumor cascades that started with bots did not change the patterns that propelled false news further and wider than true news.

"False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it," the trio wrote.

If all this has you feeling hopeless about the future, Vosoughi, Roy and Aral advise you to hang tight. The situation may seem bleak, but there's nothing to gain by ignoring it.

"Understanding how false news spreads is the first step toward containing it," the researchers wrote. "We hope our work inspires more large-scale research into the causes and consequences of the spread of false news as well as its potential cures."

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