Social scientist Dean Eckles of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me that this study, by Sinan Aral (also at MIT, although Eckles wasn’t involved in the work) and colleagues, is “the most comprehensive descriptive account of true and false information spreading on social media that we have to date.” It is certainly a huge effort, using 126,000 stories spread in tweets by 3m users between 2006 and 2017. Twitter supplied the information to the research team.
For the gargantuan task of figuring out which items carried true as opposed to false information, Aral and colleagues crosschecked it against six reliable fact-checking websites, such as and There’s obviously a grey area of “true-ish” news, but the researchers used items where there was more than 95 per cent agreement between their sources on the veracity or otherwise.
They prefer not to call false stories “fake news” though. That term, they point out, has been pretty much devalued by certain politicians, most notably of course by United States President Donald Trump and his administration, who now routinely apply it to any reports that don’t suit their agenda...
“If a news story reached 1,500 people, it did so six times faster if it was false than if it was true”
... By analysing the language used in tweets, Aral and his colleagues found that such news tends to elicit different emotions in spreaders: not sadness, joy and trust, as in true news, but disgust, as well as surprise.
The surprise comes from “novelty,” which the researchers estimate by comparing the topics of these fake stories with those of other tweets received by a random subsection of users. They found that false news also shows more novelty, according to this measure.
Novelty might not be the only, or even the major, attribute that helps false news to spread so quickly and so far; but it’s consistent with the well-known finding in cognitive science that novel stimuli command our attention more readily.
The notorious echo chamber is surely playing a role here too, although the researchers don’t try to assess that. Typically, says Quattrociocchi, “users acquire information adhering to their preferred narrative, even if this contains false claims, and ignore dissenting information.” Ah, don’t they (we) just...