MIT Study 2018: Fake news travel faster, farther than the truth

Humans, not bots, are responsible, and there’s no way to stop it, even with increased media literacy


The truth is out: The spread of hoax and rumour triumphs over truth.

  • Fake news are 70% more likely to be retweeted than truths.
  • For truth to reach 1,500 people, it takes six times as long compared to fake news
  • Truth gets retweeted slower and takes 20 times as long compared to fake news
  • Humans, not bots, responsible for fake news virality
  • Human psychology may be to be blamed

The study, published in Science Mag on Mar 9, 2018, by three Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scholars, analyses 12 years of Twitter’s data (2006 to 2017) – some 126,000 news stories that were shared 4.5 million times by 3 million people.

The research noted that factual and accurate news rarely reached more than 1,000 Twitter users while fake news reached between 1,500 and well over 100,000 people, most of it about politics.

One key finding from the research was fake news that was tweeted were more “novel” – they contained not-seen-before information that elicited amplified emotional reactions of “fear, disgust, and surprise.” Truth, on the other hand, inspired feelings of “anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.”

“If something sounds crazy stupid you wouldn’t think it would get that much traction, but those are the ones that go massively viral.”

– Alex Kasprak, a fact-checking journalist at Snopes in a comment to the Atlantic


During the research, the team asked: Were Twitter bots responsible for the spread of misinformation?

The researchers used sophisticated bot-detection technology in the course of their study to remove retweets generated by suspected bots. However, the results remained conclusive: Fake news still travel faster, and wider. This meant that humans, not bots, were responsible for the virality of fake news.


The researchers created an algorithm to segment accurate tweets from the fake ones, focusing on three attributes: the reputational standing of its author, the kind of language used, and how a tweet gets retweeted through Twitter.

Of the attributes, the researchers also focused on the popularity of the fake news vis-a-vis the popularity of the factual news, as well as the ‘depth’ – how far and wide – of such tweets.

Tweets were also screened through six different fact-checking sites to evaluate accuracy, including Snopes, and FactCheck.org

The study was well-praised by political scientists and social media researchers.

“This is a really interesting and impressive study, and the results around how demonstrably untrue assertions spread faster and wider than demonstrable true ones do, within the sample, seem very robust, consistent, and well supported.”

– Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor of political communication at the University of Oxford, in an email to the Atlantic.


The study suggests that it may be due to human psychology.

“False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information. People who share novel information are seen as being in the know.”, Aral Roy, one of the researchers in the study.

The hypothesis, however, is unconfirmed, but the study suggests that the ‘novelty of falsehoods may be an important part of their propagation’.


While the study focused on Twitter, researchers believe that the same methodology and findings can be applied to other social media platforms like Facebook.

Earlier this year (Jan 12), Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook announced that it would restructure its News Feed to favour ‘meaningful social interactions’, where users can expect to see more posts from their ‘friends, family and groups’.

The irony of this statement is that fake news is strongest in intensity when it is shared by close friends and family members due to the perceived trust. If someone posted fake news, it can be said that others within the social circle would propagate it. Owing to the more intimate nature of the relationship, due diligence may be taken for granted.

The study also suggests that no matter how careful one can be in following reliable news sources, one can still falter.

The Atlantic summarises it nicely:

“The thrill of novelty is too alluring, the titillation of disgust too difficult to transcend. After a long and aggravating day, even the most staid user might find themselves lunging for the politically advantageous rumor. Amid an anxious election season, even the most public-minded user might subvert their higher interest to win an argument.”

– Robinson Meyer, Atlantic

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