A new scientific analysis offers rigorous proof of something that social media acolytes have known for years: Twitter is an excellent platform for spreading actual news.
Unfortunately, the analysis shows, it's even better at spreading fake news.
Compared to tweets about claims that were verifiably true, tweets about claims that were undeniably false were 70% more likely to be retweeted in the Twitterverse. And false claims about politics spread further than any other category of news included in the analysis.
A team of data scientists and social media experts from MIT came to these dispiriting conclusions after examining the spread of thousands of tweets shared by millions of people over a span of 12 years. They reported their findings this week in the journal Science.
"It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people," the trio added.
Before we proceed, let's pause for a moment to define our terms.
The researchers considered "news" to be "any asserted claim made on Twitter." That claim could be expressed in words, a photo or a link to a full article on the internet.
Thanks to politicians, the term "fake news" now means information that does not support one's point of view. The researchers made a point of avoiding use of this phrase.
Instead, they categorized news as either "true" or "false." If a tweet is labeled "false," that doesn't imply that the person who wrote it is trying to pull a fast one. It only means that the claim in the tweet is inaccurate.
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 was ready to start making comparisons. They weren't pretty.
Here's a sampling of what they found:
• 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% of rumor cascades based on false news did this routinely.
• The researchers looked at the top 0.01% of both true and false rumor cascades and found that the false ones "diffused eight hops deeper into the Twittersphere than the truth."
• 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."