A Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab study, which examined around 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times on the microblogging platform Twitter between 2006 and 2017, has found that the chances of false news being retweeted by people was about 70% more likely than true news.

Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.

As per the study, the top 1% of false news reached between 1000 and 100,000 people, as compared to true news which rarely reached more than 1000 people. In fact, true news about six times as long as false news to reach 1500 people. It’s worth noting that bots on Twitter “accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate,” which essentially means that the spread of false news is significantly greater than that of true news because of humans and not bots.

Note that for the purpose of classifying news as true or false, the researchers used “information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95-98% agreement on the classifications.” These fact-checking organizations are snopes.com, politifact.com, factcheck.org, truthorfiction.com, hoax-slayer.com, and urbanlegends.about.com.

The novelty factor

It’s worth noting that as per the study, one of the reasons why the likelihood of false news to be retweeted is 70% greater than true news is that false news is measurably more ‘novel’ than true news. [Refer to the report linked below to understand how exactly the researchers went about ascertaining the novelty factor of false news and its impacts on the likelihood of being tweeted/retweeted.] The study mentions that:

Although we cannot claim that novelty causes retweets or that novelty is the only reason why false news is retweeted more often, we do find that false news is more novel and that novel information is more likely to be retweeted.

This isn’t particularly surprising, given the success of click-bait article headlines online.

Politics attracts most false news

There were about 45,000 cascades related to politics, making it the largest rumour category within the data the researchers were studying. As mentioned earlier, urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment, and natural disasters, were the other major rumour categories. Note that a cascade is essentially the number of unique users who have tweeted about one specific news (true or false).

  • The total number of false rumours peaked at the end of both 2013 and 2015 and again at the end of 2016, corresponding to the last US presidential election.
  • The data also show clear increases in the total number of false political rumors during the 2012 and 2016 US presidential elections.
  • False political news also diffused deeper more quickly and reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people.

Characteristics of users who spread false news

Users who spread false news had significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter, were verified significantly less often, and had been on Twitter for significantly less time. Falsehood diffused farther and faster than the truth despite these differences, not because of them.

Definition of news for the purpose of this study

The researchers adopted a broad definition of what constitutes news for this study.

Rather than defining what constitutes news on the basis of the institutional source of the assertions in a story, we refer to any asserted claim made on Twitter as news. We define news as any story or claim with an assertion in it and a rumor as the social phenomena of a news story or claim spreading or diffusing through the Twitter network. That is, rumors are inherently social and involve the sharing of claims between people. News, on the other hand, is an assertion with claims, whether it is shared or not.

Read the full report here.

What’s Twitter doing about false news and fake accounts?

At last months NAMApolicy event on ‘Fake News’, Twitter India’s Mahima Kaul said that the platform catches 3.2 million suspicious accounts every week and these accounts are not added to the Monthly Active Users (MAUs) stat by the company. In an effort nix suspicious accounts at the point of creation Kaul added that 450,000 suspicious logins are dealt with every day.

Recently, the microblogging platform also banned bulk tweeting. Developers are now banned from using any system that simultaneously posts “identical or substantially similar” tweets from multiple accounts at once, or makes actions like liking, retweeting, and following across multiple accounts at once. Twitter will remove these options from its own TweetDeck app, and third-party developers have until March 23rd to comply.

Also Read: Twitter seeks proposals to help improve the health of conversations