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How do you beat fake news?

New research on the ways fake news spreads via social media refines conventional wisdom and offers potential solutions to a vexing problem.
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“Most agree that the world would be better with less misinformation around. The question is: What can we do to stop it?” | Stocksy/Juan Moyano

In the last decade or so, much handwringing has transpired over what is quaintly described as “fake news” — stories that are not factually accurate that seem to get wedged in the popular psyche and stick.

Many now accept the conventional wisdom that fake news spreads “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.”

“The online spread of fake news and misinformation is clearly a major problem,” said Johan Ugander, an associate professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, who studies the phenomenon. “Most agree that the world would be better with less misinformation around. The question is: What can we do to stop it?”

To develop new and more successful techniques to squelch the spread of fake news, Ugander said we need to understand how misinformation spreads, a subject he explores in his most recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, which refines the conventional wisdom and offers up new hope of snuffing out fake news without euthanizing social media.

Deep and wide

Information, both good and bad, can spread in many different fashions. First, it can travel broadly, with single individuals passing it along to a great number of people. Online content often achieves breadth by spreading through network “hubs”—sources with a great number of followers. If fake news more often spreads broadly than true news, social media platforms looking to counter misinformation could reduce the role of the hubs by demoting them in feed algorithms among other strategies.

On the other hand, information can also travel deeply, flowing through networks of people who not only consume it, but then pass it on to others who also pass it on, as in a game of telephone.  But what sorts of information stories spread through telephone? If fake news spreads more through telephone than true news, long chains of diffusion should be a red flag for social media platforms.

“In that scenario, one technique for limiting deep diffusions would be to warn users about stories that have been passed along through long chains of readers,” Ugander said.

In their research, Ugander and his co-author, Jonas Juul at Cornell University, made key discoveries that go against the conventional wisdom that fake news spreads faster and wider than truth. Analyzing a vast store of Twitter data, the researchers found that false news only spreads more broadly than truth in the sense that they spread farther—their cascades are bigger. And bigger cascades are usually also broader and deeper. 

“A story that reaches many people has to spread either broadly or deeply, or both,” Ugander points out. “The question about fake news, then, is whether it spreads more broadly or deeply than true news, at the same size.”

Fake is infectious

Consider a fake news story that reached 100 people, alongside a true news story that reached 100 people. Ugander and Juul found that such equally sized cascades don’t differ in their spreading patterns. While fake news stories are more likely to reach 100 people than true news stories (that is, they are more infectious), as a baseline, they don’t appear to do so in a broader, deeper, or otherwise remarkably different way. 

“In light of this analysis, the two policy suggestions mentioned earlier—restraining hubs and flagging long chains—would seem to be ineffective. First, it would slow the spread of both false and true news equally. And, shutting down a hub would be the news equivalent of closing down concerts and sporting events, an overly cautious and potentially unpopular approach,” Ugander said. 

The policy debate, therefore, should focus on limiting infectiousness—reducing the person-to-person transmission of misinformation. He notes positive findings in recent work by a team of psychologists that encouraged people to consider the accuracy of content before sharing it. This simple tactic achieved broad reduction in the transmission of false news, specifically. Such a measure, in the context of viral infections, are the equivalent of a mask mandate—allowing people to socialize, but limiting the spread of bad viruses.

While the epidemic metaphor is instructive in helping to conceive of new ways to combat fake news, Ugander says that social contagion and viral contagion have long been known to differ in many key ways. Ideas, he said, require conscious decisions involving subtle cognition and cues that aren’t captured in the imagery of promiscuous particles wafting in the air. In that regard, strategies that include stronger civics education and “digital literacy” might also lower the infectiousness of false news while furthering the societal good brought by infections of factual news.

“That’s an important distinction,” Ugander says. “There’s a really easy way to stop the spread of fake news: stop the spread of all news. But we probably don’t want that. We want people to share news, but to share real news over fake.”