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09 March 2018, 02:35 | Justin Tyler
Concern over bogus stories online has escalated in recent months because of evidence the Russians spread disinformation on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign to sow discord in the US and damage Hillary Clinton. The concocted story started on a sports comedy website, but it quickly spread on social media-and people took it seriously.
For example, he said, if you "already dislike Donald Trump", and see a tweet about some outrageous thing he did, you may well have an emotional reaction and hit that "retweet" button without much thought. True information took, on average, six times longer to reach 1,500 people, compared with false stories.
What is true and what is false?
The definition of what the researchers defined as news is broader than the traditional meaning, and they accepted any asserted claims made on Twitter as news. The study's authors documented approximately 3 million Twitter users who spread 126,000 rumors from 2006 to 2017.
Political news was the largest rumour category with about 45,000 "cascades". Indeed, their data showed a clear increase in the number of false political rumors between 2012 and 2016, coinciding with USA presidential elections, of course.
The stories examined in the study were reviewed by six independent fact-checking organizations including Snopes and Politifact to assess their veracity.
But this method may have missed other, more subtle ways of spreading false news, said Professor Bruns. For example, though it was disheartening to learn that humans are more responsible for the spread of false stories than previously thought, this finding also implies that behavioral interventions may succeed in stemming the tide of falsity.
Recently, social media companies have been made to face USA and United Kingdom lawmakers about the role of bots on their platforms.
The study also found that the amount of false news on Twitter is increasing, and tends to spike during major events like the USA presidential elections of 2012 and 2016. "The challenge is there are so many vulnerabilities we don't yet understand and so many different pieces that can break or be gamed or manipulated when it comes to fake news", Menczer said.
The use of automated Twitter "bots" has become a focus of Federal Bureau of Investigation special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They also used a broad definition of "news".
"The bots may initiate the visibility, but as it becomes visible, it's humans that play a big role in passing it on", he said.
The team members concluded: "Understanding how false news spreads is the first step toward containing it".
For their study, appearing in the March 2018 issue of the journal Science, the MIT team attempted to make sense of how and why fake news and misinformation spreads fast via Twitter.
Is it actually changing people's minds?
"We are not going to remove content based on the fact this is untrue", he told British MPs in February.
"I think these results are troubling", said Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT's Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and co-author of the study, in an interview. The scientists posit that "when information is novel, it is not only surprising, but also more valuable, both from an information theoretic perspective [in that it provides the greatest aid to decision-making] and from a social perspective [in that it conveys social status on one who is "in the know" or has access to unique "inside" information]".
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