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. Read More »

The problem with online ratings — Sinan Aral

MIT Sloan Associate Professor Sinan Aral

MIT Sloan Associate Professor Sinan Aral

From MIT Sloan Management Review

Studies show that online ratings are one of the most trusted sources of consumer confidence in e-commerce decisions. But recent research suggests that they are systematically biased and easily manipulated.

A few months ago, I stopped in for a quick bite to eat at Dojo, a restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village. I had an idea of what I thought of the place. Of course I did — I ate there and experienced it for myself. The food was okay. The service was okay. On average, it was average.

So I went to rate the restaurant on Yelp with a strong idea of the star rating I would give it. I logged in, navigated to the page and clicked the button to write the review. I saw that, immediately to the right of where I would “click to rate,” a Yelp user named Shar H. was waxing poetic about Dojo’s “fresh and amazing, sweet and tart ginger dressing” — right under her bright red five-star rating.

I couldn’t help but be moved. I had thought the place deserved a three, but Shar had a point: As she put it, “the prices here are amazing!”

Her review moved me. And I gave the place a four.

As it turns out, my behavior is not uncommon. In fact, this type of social influence is dramatically biasing online ratings — one of the most trusted sources of consumer confidence in e-commerce decisions.

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