The News that Spreads Most Is False, Negative, and Surprising

The News that Spreads Most Is False, Negative, and Surprising March 9, 2018

A major study of how information spreads online has found that information that is false is shared more often than information that is true.  It also found that the strongest emotion attached to the false news being shared was “surprise.”  These findings tie in to other research that found that negative news is more likely to be shared than positive news.

MIT researcher Soroush Vosoughi and colleagues studied 126,000 “rumor cascades” on Twitter, between 2006 and 2017, spread by some 3 million people.  They then sorted the rumors according to the findings of six fact-checking organizations, requiring 95-98% agreement for the classification.  Their findings have been published in Science in the article (available at the link) entitled The Spread of True and False News Online.

Avoiding the loaded term “fake news,” the researchers found that items in the top tier of “false news cascades” would be re-Tweeted until they reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people.  True items rarely reached more than 1,000 people.

In the words of the study’s Abstract, “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, which corrected for the use of “bots” that automatically send information, also analyzed the comments on the tweets in an attempt to assess the emotional responses to the various kinds of information.  Rhett Jones, in his article on the study, reports, “Analysis of users’ comments on news found that false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise, while true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Above all, surprise was the biggest reaction to false news.”

Jones also ties this research to other findings.  “It’s well known both anecdotally and through communication studies that people are more likely to share negative news.”

Our sophisticated information and social media technology only serve to amplify the perennial human problem of gossip and rumors.  There is no such thing as “good gossip.”  All we want to hear and tell is “the dirt.”  Rumors in general are more interesting when they are negative.  And while some rumors are true, the ones that gain the greatest currency tend to be the ones that are false.
Virgil knew this in the time of ancient Rome.  In the Aeneid, he personifies many-tongued “Rumor,” who brings down the Queen of Carthage.
The Bible has nothing good to say about gossip (Romans 1:29, 2 Corinthians 12:20, 1 Timothy 5:13) and warns about the perversity and destructive power of the tongue (James 3).  Jesus Himself explains why we tend to prefer lies to the truth (John 8).
And now we have social media!
Photo by D/RV/RS, Rotterdam via Flickr, Creative Commons License
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