Fake news spreads faster, wider than truth

The term "fake news" has taken over our politics. Those in power use that term to describe news stories they deem inaccurate or inconvenient. But it also refers to entirely fabricated stories posted on the internet for political or profitable purposes.

"In this paper, we use the term 'false news' instead of 'fake news,' and we do that on purpose," said MIT Professor Sinan Aral, who conducted the largest study of fake news online and how it spreads. His paper became this month's cover story in the journal Science.

"What we found, which was surprising and in part disturbing, was that false news was traveling farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in every category of information and sometimes by an order of magnitude difference," Aral said.

In fact, across all categories of false news—whether entertainment, business or otherwise—political false news has the biggest problem.

"False political news was spreading farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than any other category of false news," Aral said. "It's an open question why that's the case."

The study examined 126,000 Twitter cascades, which are chains of retweets of particular stories deemed false by independent fact-checking organizations. They had been shared over 4.5 million times.

"For every mention of one of these stories, we retraced the sort of cascade back to what we call the origin tweet," Aral said.

In those cascades, Aral and his team found that bots aren't necessarily the bad guys.

"We found indeed that bots were spreading or accelerating the spread of false news," Aral said. "They were accelerating the spread of the truth at approximately the same rate. And, really, we humans have a lot more responsible ability for that than we thought previously."

The study also found the number of false news story spiking over time so the problem will likely get worse.

"I think there are potentially large, tangible negative consequences if we can't tell the difference between what is true and what is false," Aral said.

Now all of this begs the question: What can be done to try to curb the spread of false news online?

Aral said he and his team are studying a few ideas now. Among those ideas are rating systems for news sites and better monitoring from social media companies. Of course, that raises censorship and free speech issues. This shows you what a crow's nest trying to untangle false news online can be.