How fake news is spread
Did you hear:
- That celebrity just died (again)!
- This politician has a dramatic secret past that is just being revealed!
- Researchers found the one simple thing to cure all disease!
Sometimes fake news is easy to spot (think: ultra clickbaity headlines) . . . but, not always. Much of it has just enough believability in it to pass off as the truth.
Intelligent conscientious people may ask:
- How the heck can you tell if news is fake?
- Why is it being created?
- Where can I go to check the legitimacy and credibility of this news?
- Who spreads this misinformation? (Is it bot armies or a few people with huge followings? Someone else?)
And most of all, what makes fake news so “spreadable”?
Examples of fake news
FUN FACT: “False news” isn’t just the opposite of “true news.” One study classified false news into seven different categories from satire, to false/misleading content, all the way to straight up intentional fabricated content. For simplicity in this blog post, when I say “fake news” I’m not only talking about intentional fabrication. But, knowing these nuances, you can get a greater appreciation for how hard it can be to identify!
Fake news has become a huge problem in the past few years. A lot of it has to do with political agendas, but it exists on probably every topic there is.
It’s not just in health: Disinformation campaigns are being used by the media to push personal and industry-specific agendas.
— Leesa Klich Health (@LeesaKlich) January 20, 2020
And, how do we know this is fake?
Climate change modeling has been pretty darn accurate for decades. Anyone claiming otherwise is trying to drown out the warning sirens so we’ll argue and doubt instead of taking action. https://t.co/q28QYbUCWT pic.twitter.com/b1cFBpzIId
— Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) January 19, 2020
There are a ton of other examples of real vs. fake news, too. One of the biggest reasons why I care is because the effect of health misinformation can, in some cases, be deadly.
How fake news is spread
In the past few years researchers have been figuring out some telltale characteristics of fake news that makes it oh so spreadable.
In 2018, researchers at MIT published their study called: The spread of true and false news online
FUN FACT: This study even made the cover image of that journal edition. You can see the orange cascade representing the false news, and the teal representing the truth. (See how much bigger that orange “false” cascade is?)
And there were some fascinating findings!
What fake news was studied
First of all, how big of a problem is fake news, anyway?
The researchers looked at 126,000 rumours (cascades/chains of retweets) spread by 3 million people over 12-years (2006-2017). Topics ranged from terrorism, natural disasters, financial information, urban legends, and, yes, science. But the strongest effects were seen with false political news.
They had to determine what news was verifiably true or false by cross-referencing information with credible fact-checking websites like Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.org. (BTW, there are fake “fact-checking” sites now—purposely launched to mimick and discredit real fact checkers . . . I kid you not!)
Yes, fake news travels faster, farther, deeper, and more broadly than the truth
It’s true. The MIT researchers found that:
Many more people retweeted falsehood than the truth. ~Vosoughi et al., Science, 359, 1146–1151 (2018).
They found that false news spread faster, and reached more people than the truth. It also spread deeper and more broadly than the truth.
FUN FACT: As you’ll see, the results they found from Twitter had nothing to do with the platform itself—they are equally applicable to any social media sharing site that includes (bots and) humans.Fake news spreads faster, farther, deeper, and more broadly than the truth! Want to know why? Researchers at MIT have an idea. #fakenews Click To Tweet
The truth rarely got to over 1,000 people, whereas the top 1% of fake news stories reached up to 100,000 people.
Plus, it took the truth about six times longer to reach 1,500 people than the fake news did. And it took the truth 20 times longer to reach a depth of 10 people, compared with fake news!
Personally, I’m not sure this surprised me very much. But, now that we have that out of the way, how is fake news spread?
What’s the first step in identifying fake news?
Let’s be realistic, not everyone is going to do a full fact check for every post they share on social media; so the answer is NOT: do your own fact checks dozens of times a day, ThankYouVeryMuch.
The first step is to recognize the (oftentimes subtle) differences between fake news and real news.
And to do this, we need to understand how fake news is spread.
What I found super-interesting was WHO was spreading the fake news and why.
Who spreads fake news?
Bots? A few people with huge followings? You and me? (Yikes!)
It must be the bots . . . Right?
On initial reaction, we may want to blame the bots for this. (Or is that just me?) Automatic “retweeters” that don’t have much of a conscious brain to determine fake vs real must be at fault.
But this was wrong!
The bots were found to spread the fake and true news stories at the same rate. They can’t tell if stories are fake or real, so the odds are that they share them equally.
And that’s what these researchers discovered.
One problem, though . . . In the past few years bots have gotten much
betterworse! 😱 I suspect this is going to skew future results unless our bot-detection AI can keep up with how the bots are becoming more and more human.
⚠️Thread: I often see people use the term “Russian bot” and it drives me crazy, so I decided to write this thread to help debunk some of the myths.
1. The term Russian bot is overused and often wrong. Many inauthentic accounts we see are not from Russia and they are not bots…
— Christopher Bouzy (@cbouzy) December 29, 2019
It must be a few people with huge followings . . . Right?
The second thought was whether the fake news traveled farther, faster, and deeper because of a handful of people with huge audiences. The idea here is that fake news can reach way more people faster when a few people with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers share it.
So, was it few people with ginormous followings?
Researchers found that “people who spread false news had significantly fewer followers, were less often verified, and were less active on Twitter.”
This means that it’s the regular people with unverified smallish accounts who spread fake news to more people than large Twitter accounts did.
So, then, what is it about those posts that influenced so very many people to share the fake news?
What is it about fake news that influences so many people to spread it?
Now that we know it’s spread by many, many humans without celebrity-sized followings, what characteristics does fake news have that makes it so spreadable?
It must be the type of info . . . Right?
The researchers didn’t just look at the “facts” of the tweets to prove whether they were the truth or not (most people wouldn’t knowingly spread it, right?).
They found that the false news was more novel than the truth.
The shareable fake news was new and interesting; who wants to share the same old boring stuff, amirite?
So, novelty was one characteristic of spreadable fake news.False news was more novel than the truth. #fakenews #howfakenewsspreads #novel Click To Tweet
It must be our naturally human emotional responses . . . Right?
Since bots spread both fake and true news equally, the spread of fake news was because of our impulse to hit that “share” button. Yes, new and novel information is one reason we tend to share. But interestingly, another one is because of the emotional triggers that we feel, that bots don’t (yet!).
They also found that the false stories inspired different emotions than the truth. (This was the super-most interesting part for me!)
Perhaps these emotional triggers are another key for “going viral.”
Emotions inspired by the widely shared fake news included:
Whereas the emotions inspired by the not-so-widely shared truth included:
(Trust! Yes, trust wasn’t nearly as shareable!) ☹️The feelings of fear, disgust, and surprise are better at spreading fake news than the feelings of anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust in the truth. #fakenews #feelings #truth Click To Tweet
As I mentioned in my blog post about how to spot fake health news, we’re awash in BS!
- The Oxford dictionary declared the 2016 word of the year to be “post-truth”
- Google is trying to start showing if news has been fact-checked
- Facebook has a policy to help stop the spread of fake news
According to Vox’s story about this MIT study:
It’s a huge analysis that brings data to bear on the suspicion many have that social media, as a platform for news, has a bias for the sensational, unverified, emotional, and false. And it’s concerning, considering how social media has become a dominant force for news distribution.
So, it looks like human emotion is a huge factor when it comes to the spread of fake news.
But, I’m human, so what *exactly* can I do?
Now that you know how fake news is spread, and it’s based a lot on human emotional reaction to information, what can we do?
First of all, hold the impulse of hitting that “share” or “like” button too quickly. Take a sec to read past the attention-grabbing headline and see if your impulse to share is based on fear, disgust, or surprise.
(I know, I know, this is super-hard when you’re in the moment feeling all the feels. Pull out your inner “being in the present moment mindfulness trick” and take a breath before reacting.)
Second, look at the information with a skeptical mind, especially if it’s super-new and novel, or elicits those reactionary emotions (fear, disgust, and/or surprise). I wrote about how to read that new health study with a skeptical eye.
Here are three steps I take to stop the spread of fake news
Step 1: When I’m surprised or disgusted with something, I keep this sage quote in the back of my head:
I mean, don’t get me wrong—conspiracy theories are intriguing and make for great fictional entertainment. But the way I see it, it’s waaaay more likely that there is enough incompetence (and “stupidity”) that messes up good intentions; rather than a massive conspiracy of uber-competent bad intentions?
Step 2: If I still feel that impulse to share, but don’t have the time to at least briefly open the link to check out the article, I hit the “save” button. This way I satisfy my impulse to do something, rather than nothing; and I hold up on sharing potentially fake news until I can get back and think about it for more than a split second.
Step 3: If the fake news is in my area of expertise, I’m going to start taking a (non-clickable) screenshot and creating a post correcting that information. This way, I’m setting the record straight on the same platform where I came across the fake news to begin with.
Fake news spreads farther, faster, and deeper than the truth. It’s not the bots—it’s people like you and me who don’t have massive followings, but who are interested in new things and have feelings.
PRO TIP: Instead of hitting that “share” button when you get that impulse triggered by novelty, fear, disgust, and/or surprise) hit the “save” button to get back to it later.
Signing off and toasting: To being a better spreader of the truth!
Over to you
Were you surprised that it’s not the bots or those few people with massive followings ?(I was. I really wanted to blame the bots; but, that would have just been more fake news I wanted to believe.)
Do you have advice how we can all check in with ourselves before sharing stuff? I’d love to know (in the comments below)!
Fighting fake. (n.d.). Fake fact-checking websites. Retrieved from https://www.criticalinformation.org.uk/fake-fact-checking-sites
Luceri, L., Deb, A., Silvia Giordano, S., & Ferrara, E. (2019). Evolution of bot and human behavior during elections. First Monday, 24(9). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i9.10213 Retrieved from https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/10213/8073
Vosoughi, S. Deb Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359 (6380), 1146-1151. DOI: 10.1126/science.aap9559 Retrieved from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146
Vox. (2018). False news stories travel faster and farther on Twitter than the truth. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/3/8/17085928/fake-news-study-mit-science
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I'm Leesa Klich, MSc., R.H.N.
Health writer – Blogging expert – Research nerd.
I help health and wellness professionals build their authority with scientific health content. They want to stand out in the crowded, often unqualified, market of entrepreneurs. I help them establish trust with their audiences, add credibility to their services, and save them a ton of time so they don’t have to do the research or writing themselves. To work with me, click here.