President Donald Trump continues to call out journalists and the media for what he terms “fake news,” and a new MIT study lends credence to the claim that fake news is a pervasive force in this country. But, the truth may exist in a slightly different context from that used by the president.
A study of tweets circulated on Twitter from 2006 through 2016 seems to confirm that rumor and falsehood spread like wildfire, reaching more people and “penetrating deeper into the social network” than accurate reports. The research was conducted at MIT, and only addresses news spread via Twitter, but it has implications for other media organizations and consequences that reach far beyond the political realm. Researchers noted that falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth.
The study examined every major contested news story in English that appeared on Twitter during the 10-year period. The spread of more than 126,000 original tweets was tallied and classified based on whether or not they were true.
An article in The Atlantic, penned by staff writer Robinson Meyer, details the comprehensive findings. Meyer notes: “In short, social media seems to systematically amplify falsehood at the expense of the truth, and no one—neither experts nor politicians nor tech companies—knows how to reverse that trend. It is a dangerous moment for any system of government premised on a common public reality.”
He also notes that a group of 16 social scientists have called for additional interdisciplinary research to “redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st Century.” These political scientists and legal scholars agree that the goal should be “to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies it has revealed.”
The Pervasive Effects of Social Media
The major conclusion of the MIT research is that truth and accuracy have largely been sacrificed for “engagement” and transmission speed. The study was confined to tweets made available to the researchers with the cooperation of Twitter. Findings, backed up by damning statistics, present a methodical indictment of a “news” culture that increasingly focuses on false, misleading, sensational and provocative content.
Among the findings that are presented:
Falsehoods “go viral” much faster and more often than truth.
The conclusion is overwhelming: Humans are responsible for spreading fake news. The reasons, however, are not so easily determined. And definitions of news, truth and accuracy are still more difficult.
The researchers say that city lockdowns following the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 served as “trigger” for the study. It was born of personal experience in an effort to shed light on “the mess of information” that surrounds such news events. Vosoughi, then a student, says that Twitter became his “lifeline” to the outside world during the time he was confined to his own home, adding that some of what was passed along was true, some was false, much of it was misleading, and he was powerless to know the difference.
The Personality of News
Why do falsehoods spread so fast? Two hypotheses are formulated by the researchers:
First, fake news possesses a novelty that “real” news stories often do not have; and, secondly, fake news tweets “evoke more emotion than the average tweet.” The result is that retweeting chains of fake news become substantially longer and more influential than reality.
The motivation for the study was personal, but the results are termed “robust” and astounding. They seem to confirm that anyone who is interested in real news, whether about politics, personalities, world affairs or the latest crime may not be served well by Twitter, or by social media, for information.
The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.
Truth and accuracy, it seems, are hard to assess in today’s world and, as one of the researchers makes clear, there are no easy fixes. As Meyer explains: “On platforms where every user is at once a reader, a writer, and a publisher, falsehoods are too seductive not to succeed: The thrill of novelty is too alluring, the titillation of disgust too difficult to transcend.”
The question that remains is whether traditional journalism and the mainstream media are any better at separating fact from falsehood, and whether or not the public can, indeed, find the truth in the news of the day. President Trump suggests journalists may know better but choose to report misinformation anyway. At this point, his guess is as good as ours.
~ Conservative Zone