A recent study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false information on social media travels six times faster than the truth and reaches more people. Researchers at MIT examined more than 126,000 stories between 2006 and the end of 2016 and found that “fake news” sped through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly” than the truth in all information categories, according to the study in the journal, Science.
The scientists calculated that the average false story takes roughly 10 hours to reach 1,500 Twitter users, versus about 60 hours for the truth. On average, false information reaches 35 percent more people than actual news. Moreover, while actual news stories almost never got retweeted to 1,000 people, the top 1 percent of the false ones reached as many as 100,000 people.
What does this all mean? For starters, it means if you get the bulk of your news through social media channels, you’re only getting half the story – and that’s an optimistic estimate.
Last year, I wrote a post, “Fake News, Biased News: Bad Journalism has Spread like a Wildfire”, in which I pointed out that news today is far too instantaneous. Ryan Holiday, a media columnist and author of Ego is the Enemy, was quoted as saying: “You cannot have your news instantly and have it done well. You cannot have your news reduced to 140 characters or less without losing large parts of it.”
I worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years in the late 1980s and 1990s – and back then, if you made a mistake in an article, you were required to run a retraction in the next edition. You didn’t like having to do it, but you admitted to your error and moved on. But where is the accountability today? As noted earlier, a “retweet” won’t even reach 1,000 users, while the leading false tweets reach 100,000 people. In other words, many more people will read false information than read an online “retraction” of sorts.
You cannot have your news instantly and have it done well.
What’s more, in many instances “fake” news isn’t necessarily false on purpose, but the meaning gets lost when the message itself is either too short (such as 140 characters in a Tweet), or people fail to read the entire post (article). In a recent post, I noted that far too many people outsource the maintenance of their cars, computers, and home repairs. It was pointed out to me that most equipment today is too sophisticated for the average person to use, as opposed to the days when knowing how to turn a screwdriver or a wrench was often enough to fix a given item.
True enough, but the post went on to say that because the demand for skilled labor far exceeds the supply, many college students are MUCH better off pursuing a 1- or 2-year degree in what some refer to as “the trades” than a 4-year program in a major that is not in demand (i.e. few jobs). Reading this part of the article was, as Paul Harvey used to say, “The rest of the story.”
And so, I highly encourage anyone reading anything online to not take it as the gospel truth, because all too often it isn’t! Use a site like PolitiFact or Snopes to check out the accuracy of the article. Or consider another point of view. For instance, if you’re a liberal, it wouldn’t kill you to read something on a site like Town hall.com from time to time. Of course, the reverse is also true – if you’re a conservative and never read The Atlantic or the New York Times, you’re not being remotely objective either. The point is, know both sides of a given topic and come to your own conclusion. That’s what reporting used to entail.
Oh, and that quote I mentioned at the beginning of this article? Turns out that while that saying has largely been attributed to Mark Twain, others claim it was first said by, among others, Jonathan Swift, C.H. Spurgeon, possibly even Thomas Jefferson. So don’t believe everything you read.