A spoof “Switch to Linux” advert from c.2002. Originally a Flash animation.
A spoof “Switch to Linux” advert from c.2002. Originally a Flash animation.
“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.
There are two kinds of horror stories about Airbnb. When the home-sharing platform first appeared, the initial cautionary tales tended to emphasize extreme guest (and occasionally host) misbehavior. But as the now decade-old service matured and the number of rental properties proliferated dramatically, a second genre emerged, one that focused on what the service was doing to the larger community: Airbnb was raising rents and taking housing off the rental market. It was supercharging gentrification while discriminating against guests and hosts of color. And as commercial operators took over, it was transforming from a way to help homeowners occasionally rent out an extra room into a purveyor of creepy, makeshift hotels.
Several studies have looked into these claims; some focused on just one issue at a time, or measured Airbnb-linked trends across wide swaths of the country. But a recent report by David Wachsmuth, a professor of Urban Planning at McGill University, zeroes in on New York City in an effort to answer the question of exactly what home sharing is doing to the city.
To map this process, Wachsmuth and his team used estimates of Airbnb activity from AirDNA, a California-based firm that scrapes and analyzes Airbnb data. They studied Airbnb activity from September 2014 to August 2017, including more than 80 million data points, for the whole 20 million population of the New York City metro region. They also used a number of new spatial big-data methodologies developed specifically to analyze short-term rentals.
Their conclusion: Most of those rumors are true. Wachsmuth found reason to believe that Airbnb has indeed raised rents, removed housing from the rental market, and fueled gentrification—at least in New York City. To figure out how, the researchers mapped out four key categories of Airbnb’s impact in New York: where Airbnb is concentrated and how that’s changing; which hosts make the most money; whether it’s driving gentrification in the city; and how much housing it has removed from the rental market.
It’s obviously just not a priority for Google.
Vanity Fair looks at how Twitter just doesn’t care about policing its content.
Simon Wren-Lewis explores the relationship.
John Naughton in Prospect:
Consider the so-called “Right to Be Forgotten” granted by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2014, which gives European Union citizens the right to petition Google to have information about them removed from the company’s search results in Europe. To call it a “right to be forgotten” is not strictly accurate; it is merely a right to request that certain information not be listed in Google’s European search results—although in our networked world, this almost amounts to the same thing. If the dominant search engine doesn’t find you, then you have effectively ceased to exist. The ECJ ruling bows to the reality that Google has a unique capacity to make or break reputations.
Google itself has been given responsibility for managing the complaints and adjudicating who gets to be “forgotten,” effectively outsourcing a judicial responsibility to a private company. Territorial sovereignty, the kind exercised by elected governments, has been supplanted by what the legal scholar Frank Pasquale calls “functional sovereignty.” The digital giants, Pasquale maintains, “are no longer market participants.” Rather, “they are market makers” in their fields, “able to exert regulatory control over the terms on which others can sell goods and services.” Moreover, he says, “they aspire to displace more government roles over time, replacing the logic of territorial sovereignty with functional sovereignty. In functional arenas from room-letting to transportation to commerce, persons will be increasingly subject to corporate, rather than democratic, control.”
There is no issue so big that the tech companies think they can’t handle it themselves. When the issue of fake news flared up amid the US election, for example, the first response of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was a mixture of denial and incredulity. Then, as the evidence mounted that his advertising machine had been weaponised by dark political actors, he pivoted rapidly from that incredulity to scepticism and then—as the evidence became incontrovertible—to a technocratic determination to “solve” the problem. By the end of September, he was issuing a personal Yom Kippur post on Facebook pleading for “forgiveness” in light of the way that “my work was used to divide people.”
But Facebook has two conflicts of interest that inhibit it from fixing the problems. First, surveillance capitalism requires the maximisation of “user engagement,” to create the data that is to be monetised. And it turns out that Facebook users are often more engaged by fake news than they are by mundane truths. The much-vaunted, pending overhaul of Facebook’s algorithm to give priority to material shared between individuals represents a retreat from real news just as much as it does from fake. That could have adverse implications for the responsible media, and meanwhile, of course, that emphasis on shares only deepens the “engagement.” The second conflict stems from the fact that if Zuckerberg were to accept editorial responsibility for what is posted by his website’s users it would effectively destroy his company, given that there aren’t enough administrators in the world to vet what gets posted to Facebook in a single second.
This hasn’t stopped some from demanding that social media organisations accept responsibility for what appears on their sites. And the Germans have passed legislation that mandates swingeing penalties on platforms that do not take down offending content in a matter of hours. But like the right to be forgotten, this statute delegates to private companies the task of deciding what shall and shall not be published in a democracy—another illustration of functional sovereignty replacing its territorial counterpart.
Back in the 1980s, the cultural critic Neil Postman argued that our future would be bracketed by the nightmares of two British novelists: George Orwell, who thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear; and Aldous Huxley, who believed that our undoing would be the things that delighted us. With the aid of digital technology, we are managing to achieve both nightmares at once. We click compulsively on health scares and other anxieties while Big Brother watches, but are also distracted by dubious political claims that make us feel good and reinforce our prejudices.