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Why false news spreads faster on social media

A new study finds that novelty drives the spread of false news

Photo (c) simonmayer - Getty Images
Findings from a new study conducted by researchers at MIT show false news gets disseminated much more quickly than real news, especially when it comes to social media platforms like Twitter.

Researchers say that’s because users tend to like and retweet “novel” news that they haven’t encountered before on the site without stopping to accurately discern whether it is true or false.

“We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” said co-author Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Bots aren’t always the culprit

The researchers said they were “somewhere between surprised and stunned” at the stark difference in the trajectories of false and real news. They found that false news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news stories.

While bots have often been blamed for the spread of inaccurate news, the team found that they’re not always behind the swift spread of false news. Ordinary people are primarily behind the rapid spread of inaccurate news within the social media ecosystem.

“When we removed all of the bots in our dataset, [the] differences between the spread of false and true news stood,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a co-author of the new paper.

Study details

For the study, the team spent two years studying the role Twitter plays in spreading false news across the globe. They examined around 126,000 stories that had been tweeted out by roughly 3 million people worldwide.

To determine if a story was real or fake, the researchers used six independent fact-checking groups, including,, and The MIT researchers termed inaccurate news "false" as opposed to "fake,” because "fake news" is a term that involves multiple broad meanings.

Of the 126,000 stories tweeted, politics accounted for the biggest news category, and its spread was more pronounced than for news in other categories. Truthful tweets took about six times longer to reach 1,500 people than false tweets.

Novelty fuels spread

The results of the study suggest that novelty plays a key role in the spread of falsehoods on Twitter. “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” said Aral.

Spreading previously unknown (but possibly false) information can help social media users gain attention. As Aral put it, “people who share novel information are seen as being in the know.”

The full study has been published online in the journal Science.

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