I wrote last week about an early encounter with Fake News. This week I ran across a study that explains to some extent why we are so easily misled by news that is either too good or too bad to be true. And why the sales guy and the secretary I talked about last week continued to believe in a false story even when we proved it was false.
We’ve probably all heard the quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That quote is attributed to Mark Twain, but I’ve got bad news folks: it’s Fake News. Most likely, it’s an updating of something said two centuries earlier by Jonathan Swift: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
I like Twain’s alleged quote a little better, more so when someone substitutes “pants” for “shoes,” which sounds more like David Letterman said it.
Either way, while the quote is not true, what it says is and a new study by MIT supports it. Fake news (their term is False News) succeeds – not because of bots, Russian or otherwise – but because humans are more likely to spread it. The study (which focused on Twitter) by three MIT scholars found that false news spreads more rapidly on the social network than real news does – and not just by a little bit. Try six times faster.
“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 Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings.
One reason people spread false news – the researchers smartly avoided the politically hot potato words “fake news” – is the novelty factor. The MIT scholars put forth what they call the “novelty hypothesis.”
“We saw a different emotional profile for false news and true news,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a co-author of the study. “People respond to false news more with surprise and disgust,” while true stories produced replies more generally characterized by sadness, anticipation, and trust.
That’s not so different in other areas of the world. False News evokes a more emotional response, in other words, than, say, a Tweet about a successful PTA meeting.
One False News story: “Pope Francis shocks the world by endorsing President Trump,” ruled the Social Media world for a few hours during the election, while an actual interview with the Pope on providing alms for the poor gets the Twitter version of a yawn.
False News is the crack cocaine of the news business. I feel confident in saying that even though I’ve no experience with crack cocaine. But, as I understand it, crack cocaine feels good when you use it – you get a huge high from it.
That’s similar to reading something and saying: “Man, it feels frickin’ great to know I was right about Obama being a Muslim!” This endorphin-fueled euphoria must feel great, even if it’s False News.
As the sign in the newsroom at City News in Chicago was alleged to say: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
And yes, that old adage, which many of us old-school journalists try to live by, is likely a mis-attributed fable. Real news can be such a downer sometimes.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.