False news spreads more rapidly on Twitter. Is it just because it’s more interesting?

News travels fast on Twitter, particularly if it’s false, according to new research from MIT.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/File
News travels fast on Twitter, particularly if it’s false, according to new research from MIT.

Researchers from MIT say that false news spreads more rapidly on Twitter than real news does — and they’re suggesting it might simply be because it’s more interesting.

“False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and coauthor of a new paper detailing the findings, said in a statement from the university.

“People who share novel information are seen as being in the know,” even if the information turns out to be false, Aral said.


Falsehoods spread “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” Aral said.

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Deb Roy, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab and director of the Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines, who is also a coauthor of the study, said researchers were “somewhere between surprised and stunned” at the results.

The results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

The researchers said they found that the spread of false information was essentially not related to bots that are programmed to flood the Internet with inaccurate stories.

After removing the bots from their data, “the differences between the spread of false and true news stood,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a coauthor and postdoctoral researcher at the university.


The genesis of the research was the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Vosoughi said he followed Twitter for news during that tumultuous week and later realized that a good chunk of the things he had read were rumors. That insight ultimately led to the current study of false news.

The researchers consulted with six fact-checking organizations on whether stories were true or false. They tracked approximately 126,000 cascades, or unbroken retweet chains, of news stories on Twitter, accounting for a total of 4.5 million tweets by about 3 million people, from 2006 to 2017.

They found false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. They also found it took true stories about six times longer to reach 1,500 people than false stories.

Researchers looked at people’s reactions to the stories and found people tended to respond to false news more with surprise and disgust, while they responded to true news more with sadness, anticipation, and trust.

The researchers said it is possible the same holds true on other social media platforms but said more study was needed.


Twitter users, Roy said, might reflect on this idea: “Think before you retweet.”