False news spreads online faster, farther, and deeper than truth does — but it can be contained. Here’s how. – Sinan Aral

Sinan Aral, MIT Sloan David Austin Professor of Management

From Harvard Business Review

In March of 2018 President Trump’s tweets claiming that Amazon pays “little or no taxes to state & local governments” sent the company’s stock toward its worst monthly performance in two years. Trump had his facts wrong — and the stock price has since recovered — but the incident highlights an unsettling problem: Companies are profoundly vulnerable to misinformation spreading on social media. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream media has focused primarily on whether false news affected the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the truth is that nobody is safe from this kind of damage. The spread of falsity has implications for our democracies, our economies, our businesses, and even our national security. We must make a concerted effort to understand and address its spread.

For the past three years Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and I have studied the spread of false news online. (We use the label “false news” because “fake news” has become so polarizing: Politicians now use that phrase to describe news stories that don’t support their positions.) The data we collected in a recent study spanned Twitter’s history from its inception, in 2006, to 2017. We collected 126,000 tweet cascades (chains of retweets with a common origin) that traveled through the Twittersphere during this period and verified the truth or falsehood of the content that was spreading. We then compared the dynamics of how true versus false news spreads online. On March 9 Science magazine published the results of our research as its cover story.

What we found was both surprising and disturbing. False news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in every category of information, sometimes by an order of magnitude, and false political news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than any other type.

The importance of understanding this phenomenon is difficult to overstate. And, in all likelihood, the problem will get worse before it gets better, because the technology for manipulating video and audio is improving, making distortions of reality more convincing and more difficult to detect. The good news, though, is that researchers, AI experts, and social media platforms themselves are taking the issue seriously and digging into both the nature of the problem and potential solutions.

False news per se wasn’t something Sinan Aral (Twitter @sinanaral) thought he’d be studying. He and Deb Roy were advising Soroush Vosoughi on his doctoral thesis at MIT when the Boston Marathon was bombed. Like many others that day, they turned to Twitter to find out what was happening. “We saw lots of misinformation,” Aral recalls. Vosoughi was so fascinated by the experience that he took the dramatic and unusual step of shifting his thesis to focus exclusively on false news. The three became coauthors on a landmark Science paper about the ability of false news to spread and stick.

In this article I’ll examine how we might contain the spread of falsity. A successful fight will require four interrelated approaches — educating the players, changing their incentives, improving technological tools, and (the right amount of) governmental oversight — and the answers to five key questions:

But before getting into solutions, let’s take a closer look at why we should care about this issue.

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.

Sinan Aral is the David Austin Professor of Management at MIT, where he is a Professor of IT & Marketing, and Professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society where he co-leads MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.

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