“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it,” Jonathan Swift once wrote.
It was hyperbole three centuries ago. But it is a factual description of social media, according to an ambitious and first-of-its-kind study published Thursday in Science.
The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominates the truth on Twitter, the study finds: Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.
“It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013 and who led this study. “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,” write a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars in an essay also published Thursday in Science. 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 does best.