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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

False news spreads faster than true stories, and it's because of humans, not bots, according to a new study published today in Science. Our preference for novel news, which is often false, may be driving our behavior, researchers from MIT report.

The bottom line: "It's important to avoid temptation to shift the blame elsewhere and focus on these non- human and foreign actors. Even if we solve bots and the foreign interference problem, it wouldn’t solve the problem of online misinformation," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, who wasn't involved in the study.

Details from the study, one of the first large scientific ones to actually analyze false news:

  • Researchers looked at how roughly 2500 contested news stories — determined to be true or false by six fact-checking sites, including Politifact and Snopes — spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017 via 3 million people and more than 4.5 million tweets. They found false stories — especially political ones — traveled faster, farther and deeper into the network than the true kind. (True stories took six times as long as false ones to reach 1500 people.) And, false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.
  • They examined users' timelines over 60 days and found they were more likely to tweet information they haven't heard before. And, this novel information was more likely to be false than true.
  • They then went back and, using a bot detection algorithm, removed bots from the analysis. Surprisingly, MIT's Soroush Vosoughi says, bots weren't the reason for the difference between true and false news — they spread them equally.

The limitations:

  • Most news traveling through Twitter isn't contested so we don't know what it looks like for news that didn't make it into those fact-checking organizations, according to an author of the study, MIT's Deb Roy.
  • The researchers suspect the trend carries over to other platforms but they don't have the data. Roy says:
"It raises interesting questions but provides no answers for what happens on other platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and other social media platforms but good old-fashioned things like email can also be used to share news. There are various places where news and information spread that we can’t say anything about."

What's next: There need to be ways to intervene and dampen the spread of misinformation, Vosoughi says. Roy says he is skeptical of media literacy training as a way to address the issue but Vosoughi is optimistic that it could help people to pause before they share something.

Another possibility would be to come up with an indicator of how much a person is contributing to a "healthy" discourse on a platform. Twitter recently announced it will work with independent researchers to determine what a healthy social network looks like. (The social network provided data and funding to the MIT team for this study but it was independently conducted.)

In an accompanying article, Nyhan and other researchers say it should be possible to tweak platforms' business models to better balance quality information with the monetary incentive for attention. He says Twitter should be commended for making data available for this research and urges other platforms to follow suit.

Go deeper

U.S. grants temporary protected status to thousands of Venezuelans

Venezuelan citizens participate in the vote for the popular consultation in December 2020, as part of a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Doral, Florida. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP

Venezuelans living in the United States will be eligible to receive temporary protected status for 18 months, the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday.

Why it matters: Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to the U.S. amid economic, political and social turmoil back home. Former President Trump, on his last full day in office, granted some protections to Venezuelans through the U.S. Deferred Enforced Departure program, but advocates and lawmakers said the move didn't go far enough.

The Week America Changed

Sandberg thought Zuckerberg was "nuts" on remote work in January 2020

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Image

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg thought Mark Zuckerberg was "nuts" when he raised the possibility in January 2020 that 50,000 Facebook employees might have to work from home. By March 6, they were.

Why it matters: In an interview Monday with Axios Re:Cap, Sandberg explained how Facebook moved quickly to respond to the pandemic with grants for small businesses and work-from-home stipends for its employees, and how the company has been watching the unfolding crisis for women in the workforce.

Supreme Court declines to hear case on qualified immunity for police officers

The Supreme Court on March 5. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal for a lawsuit brought against Cleveland police officers that challenges the scope of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine which has been used to shield officers from lawsuits alleging excessive force, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: The doctrine has been the subject of scrutiny from civil rights advocates. Eliminating qualified immunity was one of the key demands of demonstrators during nationwide protests in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd.