Bots don't spread fake news on Twitter, people do, say MIT researchers

Fake news spreads faster than true news on Twitter—thanks to people, not bots

In one of the largest studies of its kind, MIT researchers examining thousands of fake news stories going back a decade on Twitter have determined that fake news is more likely to spread across the social network than factual information. Indeed, they report, false news that spreads fast is considered more novel; that novel information is more likely to be retweeted.

The study's findings suggest veracity may be a rare commodity: the truth typically took about six times as long as a falsehood to reach 1,500 people.

After removing bots, pieces of software which automatically tweet or retweet information, from the analysis using an algorithm, the team found the differences between the spread of true and fake news was the same.

"False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information", Aral said.

False news evoked more reactions of surprise and disgust than truthful news, which tended to produce responses of sadness, anticipation and trust.

The researchers also settled on the term "false news" as their object of study, as distinct from the now ubiquitous term "fake news", which involves multiple broad meanings.

Fil Menczer, an informatics and computer science professor at Indiana University who was not involved in the study, cautioned that we shouldn't underestimate the ability of bots to amplify fake news.

Worryingly, however, the MIT researchers found that fake news spreads faster than the truth because humans, not bots, are more likely to retweet it, partly because the false rumors are created to be novel and viral.

"We are saturated with news, so things have to be more and more surprising, or disgusting, to get attention".

The rate of retweets for fake news was higher, even when researchers controlled for a variety of factors such as the age of the tweeter and the number of followers.

But why are people sharing false info more often? In an article accompanying the Science study Thursday, Menczer joined 15 other prominent academics calling for greater research into the spread of misinformation online. If we allow the world to be consumed by falsity, we are inviting catastrophe.

The researchers considered "news" to be "any asserted claim made on Twitter". One possibility - which hasn't yet been researched - would be to add a labeling system, flagging social media posts that are likely to be false, just as cellphones now identify "scam likely" on some incoming robocalls.

The study was borne out of examination of the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Studies show more people get their news from Facebook than they do from Twitter, but it is hard to say which site is more vulnerable to manipulation, Lazer says. After the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a fake story circulated that the teenage survivors now advocating for gun control were "crisis actors", and research has shown that misinformation and conspiracy theories are deeply embedded in some of the most popular websites. They propagated true and false news roughly equally.

The stories were designated as true or false based on six independent fact-checking organizations:,,,,, and

So far, Twitter has mostly resisted being "the arbiters of truth", said Nick Pickles, Twitter's head of public policy for the United Kingdom.

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