As non-Republicans continue their search for scapegoats to blame for Hillary Clinton’s presidential loss to Donald Trump, a major focus of Trump skepticism has been ‘fake news’ allegedly peddled by Russia to electioneer the 2016 vote. To their credit, 13 trolls thought to be working for the Russian government were recently uncovered in a massive investigation by Robert Mueller.
It’s anyone’s guess how influential 13 Reds with a $100,000 Facebook budget for America’s 6.8 billion-dollar election may have been, but perhaps the driver behind fake news is less nefarious than we’ve been led to believe: What if people are just gossiping, lazy, idiots? It appears that may be the case, at least according to a study published today in the journal Science about how fake news spreads on social media.
It turns out that fake news spreads in a similar way to high school gossip. Fictional news not seen anywhere else is like a secret waiting to get out around school. People jump to share it because it appears exclusive and people want to be the first to break the news to their friends. “Novel information is thought to be more valuable than redundant information,” study co-author Sinan Aral, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said. “People who spread novel information gain social status because they’re thought to be ‘in the know’ or to have inside information.”
Making matters worse, the study found that false news spreads more pervasively than legitimate information. In the study, researchers found that “[a]bout 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.”
So basically, in a rush to spread gossip-like information to gain social credit, people spread fictional news because they’re also either too lazy to bother fact-checking it or too dumb to realize patently false information is, indeed, false (or both?).
Further, the study found that the other scapegoat for America’s fake news idiocracy — social media bots, whether homegrown or of Russian origin — actually appear to be a product of fake news itself. According to the researchers: “[c]ontrary 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.”
“So bots could not explain this massive difference in the diffusion of true and false news we’re finding in our data,” says co-author Sinan Aral, “it’s humans that are responsible.” [emphasis added]
Or perhaps irresponsible would be more accurate.