If You Want to Know Who to Blame for Fake News, Look in the Mirror

A new study on fake news and its appeal on social media reveals an old teaching from the Bible– humanity is sinful by nature and prone to evil.

The first-of-its-kind study from researchers at MIT looked specifically at Twitter.

“It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT who has studied fake news since 2013 and who led this study. “It might have something to do with human nature.”

The researchers found a false story is much more likely to go viral as it reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject, fake news about politics regularly does best.

Extrapolating those numbers as a percentage, falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.

The Atlantic offered two examples of how quickly fake news spreads compared to facts.

“In August 2015, a rumor circulated on social media that Donald Trump had let a sick child use his plane to get urgent medical care. Snopes confirmed almost all of the tale as true. But according to the team’s estimates, only about 1,300 people shared or retweeted the story.

“In February 2016, a rumor developed that Trump’s elderly cousin had recently died and that he had opposed the magnate’s presidential bid in his obituary. “As a proud bearer of the Trump name, I implore you all, please don’t let that walking mucus bag become president,” the obituary reportedly said. But Snopes could not find evidence of the cousin, or his obituary, and rejected the story as false.

“Nonetheless, roughly 38,000 Twitter users shared the story. And it put together a retweet chain three times as long as the sick-child story managed.

“A false story alleging the boxer Floyd Mayweather had worn a Muslim head scarf to a Trump rally also reached an audience more than 10 times the size of the sick-child story.”

Here’s a way to test the study for yourself. The next time you see a correction on Twitter when someone tweets a story that ends up being false, see how many tweets the correction gets compared the original post.  It’s almost always a mere fraction.

The Allure of Fake News

Why are we so engrossed by fake news? Those from a biblical worldview say the reason lies in our fallen nature.

“Social media enlivens our carnal nature,” Kim Cash Tate wrote in an article for Desiring God. “We enjoy quick satisfaction. Emotion wants an outlet. Complaints must be heard. Anger needs to be expressed. And contrary views must be vigorously opposed, because that’s what the flesh enjoys as well — superiority. It will mow down another’s views — succinctly if on Twitter — while elevating its own, earning a satisfying flurry of shares and retweets. We all know how much the flesh loves validation.”

The MIT team offered two hypotheses of its own that are similar to Tate’s analysis.

First, we yearn to tell a story that few have read and fake news seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from all the tweets that have appeared in a user’s timeline 60 days prior to their retweeting them, the team found.

Second, we’re moved by our passion over a story.  Fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet. The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.

Rebekah Tromble, a professor of political science at Leiden University in the Netherlands told the Atlantic, “The key takeaway is really that content that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster, more deeply, and more broadly on Twitter. This particular finding is consistent with research in a number of different areas, including psychology and communication studies. It’s also relatively intuitive.”

A Biblical Admonish of Fake News

The book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Silicon Valley scientist and entrepreneur Jason Lanier, includes a section dealing with human nature.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said of the section:

“We all know that social media platforms amplify the voices of ‘trolls,’ those extraordinarily wounded psyches who seek out such venues to vent their inner demons with anger. Lanier’s argument, though, is not just that social media give a hearing to trolls but that these media are making us all, a little bit, into trolls. He uses a word that is less-than-evangelical-friendly, but that is synonymous with a boorish, mean-spirited jerk, and says that social media actually can make us into people like this.”

Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, likened many posts on social media to “drive-by bludgeons, mass-producing invective and criticism.” No wonder so many find tantalizing information in fake news.  Burk called them an “assembly line of asinine, unaccountable commentary and critique.”

But he added a warning from Solomon who said they exemplify the ‘one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword.” (Prov. 12:18)