This Study on Twitter’s Fake News Problem Points the Finger — at You.

Communication & Psychology Theory, Social Media

Bots bear some of the blame for the proliferation of fake news. However, a deep study on Twitter user behavior indicates that the main problem is people. 

Not surprising.

People are emotional, irrational beings who seem to prefer sharing lies that match their worldview over reconciling their beliefs with facts. And while technology, legislation and watchdogs are trying to keep up, this study seems to indicate that individual users are mostly to blame. 

Essentially, savvy content creators mobilize the masses through emotional manipulation. 

An estimated two-thirds of tweeted links to popular websites are posted by automated accounts – not human beings.


from Bots in the Twittersphere

MIT’s Project

The MIT study reviewed every noteworthy fake news story in English that was shared on Twitter. 
This included:

  • 126,000 stories
  • 3 million users
  • 10 years of activity

Robinson Meyer, summarizes the implications quite well in his article The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News. Below are the key take-aways from this gigantic review and Meyer’s thoughtful analysis. 

1. People Share Lies more than Truth

“Twitter users seem almost to prefer sharing falsehoods. Even when the researchers controlled for every difference between the accounts originating rumors—like whether that person had more followers or was verified—falsehoods were still 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.”

Robinson Meyer, The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News

This part of the problem lies in predictable human behavior. We love a juicy story. Over and over again, the inflammatory false stories get retweeted. The (boring) truth gets ignored. One reason why this may happen is because of our social needs. 

In the article This Is Your Brain on Gossip, Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD explains the neurological high that people get from sharing rumors. 

“Two separate areas of the prefrontal cortex get activated in response to positive and negative gossip: positive gossip activates the orbital prefrontal cortex region, while negative gossip activates the superior medial prefrontal cortex. The intensity of responses was, however, very different depending on whether the gossip was about the subject of study or other people. Substantial activation of the superior medial prefrontal cortex was observed in both cases, regardless of the subject of the negative gossip. The orbital prefrontal cortex region was highly activated by positive gossip about the subjects themselves. However, this response was rather muted when the subjects listened to positive gossip about their friends or celebrities.”

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, This Is Your Brain on Gossip

Essentially, we are highly engaged in negative gossip about high-profile people. The stuff of tabloids is, well, the stuff we crave.

When applied to tweeting, the outcomes aren’t surprising. People like to share rumors, especially when they are about important people. 

Take for instance the Melania Trump “Fake Melania” Body Double story. This piece of fake news was often accompanied by odd angled, or altered photos to suggest that someone (or something??) had replaced the First Lady. 

It was such an interesting notion because it featured a celebrity and a scandal. Users asked, “Why would she need a body double — marriage trouble, security or something more sinister?” The story lit up our lizard brains and the retweets followed. 

2. The Lies Grow Deeper Roots

“(Fake News) consistently reaches a larger audience, and it tunnels much deeper into social networks than real news does. The authors found that accurate news wasn’t able to chain together more than 10 retweets. Fake news could put together a retweet chain 19 links long—and do it 10 times as fast as accurate news put together its measly 10 retweets.”

Robinson Meyer, The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News

Surprisingly, the depth of fake news matches its width. For a while, researchers had previously thought that fake news would have a “shallow” presence — being retweeted among bots at a superficial level. While this does happen, the chains also go deep — often deeper than real news.

Answers to this may lie in Social Identity Theory meaning, that people form their sense of self around the groups with which they identify. This requires individuals to not only assimilate themselves with an ingroup but also, to identify who comprises the outgroup. As a result, certain behaviors follow.

Notably, ingroup favoritism, where people give preferential treatment to those who may be part of the same ingroup, predicts some of this deep fake-news sharing. The lack of criticism, especially toward sharers within the same ingroup, proliferates the messages. Essentially, people can struggle to self-moderate the truthfulness of content when it matches the messages of their microculture. 

An example of this was the fake news that Black Lives Matter groups blocked hurricane relief. The story spread because certain people already felt threatened by this “outgroup.” Within certain circles, the story thrived, unquestioned and unreviewed — even though it could be easily debunked by a reverse image search.

3. Lies Are More Interesting

“ … fake news seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the all the tweets that have appeared in a user’s timeline 60 days prior to their retweeting them, the team found.”

Robinson Meyer, The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News

Regardless of topic, sensational stories were retweeted most often. Whether they are full-blown conspiracy theories or just harmful speculation, Fake News stories often rely on the Appeal to Ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam) logical fallacy. In essence, they point out that you can’t disprove their argument and therefore, it might be true. 

While some claims are wild and insidious (like the pizzagate conspiracy which led to an attempted mass shooting), others try to put up a veneer of truth. 

For example, Alex Jones claims are often presented as something you can’t prove “isn’t happening”. Whether it’s that gay frogs are proof that the government is tampering with our water or that the government is controlling the weather, he often says there is no proof to the contrary because you can’t prove a negative. By setting up this argument, he doesn’t have to actually provide any factual evidence for his claims. Instead, he can just speculate about how something might have happened

4. Lies Appeal to Our Emotions

“…fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet. The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to the 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.”

Robinson Meyer, The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News

The Elaboration Likelihood Model predicts why fake news relies on emotional appeals to generate engagement. The theory asserts that people will abandon rational thought processes if you appeal to their emotions when making a persuasive argument. 

The central route, is straight to the point and complete. It doesn’t rely on emotion, and instead, presents facts. It only works when the person is highly engaged, not distracted and willing to review the information thoughtfully. By contrast, the peripheral route overwhelms a person and leads to an illogical, emotional choice. It bypasses facts and thought. 

This tactic has been used in sales, marketing, politics and frankly, any form of storytelling since the dawn of time. 

The “Ink Hurts Children” meme exemplifies how emotional appeals can circumvent logical thinking. This image of a sad, cute little girl next to fear-mongering text pops up in popularity from time to time. The related message explains that parents with tattoos are more likely to abuse their children, according to umm… science? They also make a plea for people to call CPS on any parents they know who have visible tattoos. 

Although the meme started on a parody website, people earnestly spread the message — showing how quickly people react to dubious claims when they tug at our heartstrings.

Join the Conversation

Please visit Meyer’s article and the original study to get a deeper understanding of how fake news spreads. You and I are complicit in the spread of false information whenever we click and share. If people simply stopped spreading these stories, they would die much more quickly.

I’d like to hear about how you evaluate the news you see on social media. Do you think you’re good at spotting fake news? Feel free to share your tips and advice by commenting below or visiting my Instagram page. 

Additional Reading

Meyer, R. (2018, March 12). The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/ 

Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018, March 09). The spread of true and false news online. Retrieved from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146 

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