CAPE TOWN – Falsehoods almost always beat out the truth on Twitter, penetrating further, faster, and deeper into the social network than accurate information.

“It seems to be pretty clear that false information outperforms true information,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013. “And that is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.” 

The study has already prompted alarm from social scientists. “We must redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century,” writes a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars in an essay also published recently. They call for a new drive of interdisciplinary research “to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies it has revealed.”

“How can we create a news ecosystem… that values and promotes truth?” they ask. The new study suggests that it will not be easy. Though Vosoughi and his colleagues only focus on Twitter – the study was conducted using exclusive data that the company made available to MIT – their work has implications for Facebook, YouTube, and every major social network. 

Any platform that regularly amplifies engaging or provocative content runs the risk of amplifying fake news along with it. Though the study is written in the clinical language of statistics, it offers a methodical indictment of the accuracy of information that spreads on these platforms. 

A false story is much more likely to go viral than a real story, the authors find. A false story reaches 1 500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject – including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment – fake news about politics regularly do best.

Twitter users seem almost to prefer sharing falsehoods. Even when the researchers controlled for every difference between the accounts originating rumours – like whether that person had more followers or was verified – falsehoods were still 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news. And blame for this problem cannot be laid with our robotic brethren. From 2006, Twitter bots amplified true stories as much as they amplified false ones, the study found. 

Fake news prospers, the authors write, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

Political scientists and social-media researchers largely praised the study, saying it gave the broadest and most rigorous look so far into the scale of the fake-news problem on social networks, though some disputed its findings about bots and questioned its definition of news.

“This is a really interesting and impressive study, and the results around how demonstrably untrue assertions spread faster and wider than demonstrable true ones do, within the sample, seem very robust, consistent, and well supported,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

Katy Steinmetz from Time Magazine wrote in August: “Our inability to parse truth from fiction on the internet is, of course, more than an academic matter. The scourge of fake news and its many cousins – from clickbait to deep fakes (realistic-looking videos showing events that never happened) – have experts fearful for the future of democracy. 

Politicians and technologists have warned that meddlers are trying to manipulate elections around the globe by spreading disinformation. That’s what Russian agents did in 2016, according to US intelligence agencies. 

And on July 31, Facebook revealed that it had found evidence of a political-influence campaign on the platform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. 

The authors of one now-defunct page got thousands of people to express interest in attending a made-up protest that apparently aimed to put "white nationalists and left-wingers on the same streets”.

There is no quick fix, though tech companies are under increasing pressure to come up with solutions. 

Facebook lost more than $120 billion (R1.71 trillion) in stock value in a single day in July as the company dealt with a range of issues limiting its growth, including criticism about how conspiracy theories spread on the platform. 

But engineers can't teach machines to decide what is true or false in a world where humans often don't agree. 

What is truth? And how do we know?

Based on the research by MIT, Business Report contacted five South African industry leaders, discussing the impact of fake news on companies. Their views will be published in a series of articles on www.businessreport.co.za

BUSINESS REPORT