Tech & society

Study confirms anecdotal experience: corrections aren’t as viral as misinformation

Recent research published in Science confirms that we’d rather traffic in rumors that are false than in truth, particularly when the subject is political.

Once upon a time, at a Gnomedex, I live-tweeted an emotional claim about the average age of a homeless person in the United States. I heard the number from the speaker, was shocked and typed-before-thinking.

Someone pinged me, saying that they thought the number was false. I did some quick research (look at the timestamps) and determined that, yes, the tweet I had just sent was misinformation.

I was not a happy camper. I elevate reason over emotion and was feeling manipulated.

I then spent a fruitless, uphill battle, trying to retract the tweet.

Thus I nodded my head in affirmation when I read this abstract about how false news spreads in the March 2018 issue of Science. The researchers analyzed a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017.

About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth (emphasis added)…

Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.

The abstract closes with perhaps the most discouraging summary statement ever:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.

Pogo was right: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Each person who shares a false meme, a snippet of misinformation, an outright lie … contributes to the the gulf between right and left. That’s because of a concept called illusory truth. The more often we encounter the same fabrication, the more likely we are to believe it. Repetition makes permanent.

There are many nails in the coffin of the “rational actor” who permeated economics textbooks and classes during my undergrad and graduate school career.

This is merely the latest.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have brains; we are capable of reason.

We choose the easier path of emotion.


think before sharing

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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