“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” Appropriately enough, this quote, and others like it, have been wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, and many others, although the sentiment dates back at least to Jonathan Swift. It is doubtful any of them scientifically tested the claim, but in the social media age, we can.
The Internet has certainly accelerated the rate at which stories can travel the world. For lies, truth, and everything in between, the travel time is much faster now, but does one outpace the other?
Professor Sinan Aral, Dr Soroush Vosoughi, and Dr Deb Roy, all of MIT, analyzed 126,000 stories spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, with over 4.5 million tweets from some 3 million people. The trio used assessments by six independent fact-checking organizations to classify the truth or otherwise of these stories.
“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,” the study authors report in Science. “Whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1,000 people, the top 1 percent of false-news cascades routinely diffused to between 1,000 and 100,000 people.”
All this was despite the fact that the people who routinely spread false rumors had significantly fewer followers than those who mostly spoke the truth, which might have been expected to reduce their power to promote falsehoods.
Presumably, this gap is not because people genuinely prefer lies or are aware that is what they are promoting. One might also hope the existence of fact checkers would apply the brakes to false narratives. Nor can we blame bots. While robots, including those controlled by the Russian government, accelerated the spread of false stories, the authors found true stories got an equal robot-driven boost, suggesting the problem mainly lies with human tweeters.
Consequently, the authors sought differences in people's responses to typical true and false stories to explain their observations. By looking at reactions to these stories, they found that the false ones inspired greater surprise and disgust, while the true ones were more likely to be met with sadness or anticipation. The authors suspect the novelty value of false news, indicated by the surprised response, encourages its spread, but it also appears disgust motivates retweeting more than sadness.
In news that will probably shock absolutely no one, false rumors peaked around the time of the last US presidential election. Surprisingly, however, there was an even greater peak of mostly non-political falsehoods in late 2013.