By Pascal Lapointe – The Rumor Detector
Agence Science-Presse (www.sciencepresse.qc.ca)
In March of 2018, an MIT study concluded that on Twitter, news that is false travels much faster than news that is true. Recently, a report cited two researchers who apparently had refuted the 2018 findings. But this in itself was false news: in fact, the two researchers had confirmed the original conclusion.
The Rumor Detector untangles this web…
The 2018 study found that “falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.” That’s what computer scientist Sorouth Vosoughi and two of his MIT colleagues wrote in a study published in March 2018 in the American magazine Science. Their research reviewed an impressive amount of data when compared with previous studies of the same topic: they analyzed 126,000 cascades of news stories circulated on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, tweeted over 4.5 million times by about 3 million people.
The researchers also settled on the term “false news” as their object of study, as distinct from the now-ubiquitous term “fake news,” which involves multiple broad meanings.
The study itself went viral, having been cited in over 500 media reports. So it would have been ironic to learn that the study itself was false news that travelled faster and wider than real news stories. That was the point of departure for the controversy: the claim was that two other researchers had refuted the 2018 results, in a new study that came out in November 2021 and had passed largely unnoticed.
Not true. Asked about a March 23rd, 2022 report that cited them on the subject, the two researchers in question, Jonas Juul of Cornell University and Johan Ugander of Stanford University, denied refuting the 2018 study. In fact, the author of the March 23rd article published a correction the next day and his report, devoted to the importance of studying disinformation, was amended as a result.
He wouldn’t be the only one to be embarrassed by all this. In an article published on March 26th, 2022, in The Atlantic, an American magazine, journalist Daniel Engber fell on his sword and apologized for having erroneously tweeted, on March 24th, that the 2018 research had been refuted.
Where they disagreed was largely on a question of semantics: “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly” are, they suggested, four facets of the same reality. A false news item can be more “infectious” than a true news item and, for that reason, can be susceptible to reaching more people with each new “contaminated” person. But the final result is the same: false news can reach more people than true news.
The 2018 study had its limits, which the authors admitted at the time. Determining which of their 126,000 news cascades was false was dependent on the work of 6 fact checking organizations: factcheck.org, hoax-slayer.com, politifact.com, snopes.com, truthorfiction.com, and urbanlegends.about.com. But the false news reports revealed by these organizations constituted only a fraction of all false news in circulation. Remember that when the global pandemic broke in February of 2020, the World Health Organization alerted people about an “infodemic,” or an epidemic of false news.
Is it possible that a sample of pandemic false news items would be different than the “rest” of the false news out there? Perhaps other studies will tell us…
By one of the authors of the 2018 study:
The French version on Reflet de Société:
This article is part of the Détecteur de rumeurs file; click here for other articles in the series.