During the past few years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the spread and impact of false news, including false news about science. To determine the degree and manner by which false news spreads, Soroush Vosoughi and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied it (Vosoughi S, Roy D, and Aral S. The Spread of True and False News Online. Science. 2018 Mar 9;359 (6380):1146-51).
The authors investigated the differential distribution of true and false news stories carried on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. False stories diffused “significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly” than accurate stories. The impact of false news stories was greater for political stories than for stories about natural disasters, terrorism, science, urban legends or financial issues. The authors postulate that false news stories were more likely to have an impact because they were more interesting and novel than true stories.
Of note, the authors found that contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of false and true stories at the same rates. This means that people, not robots, were responsible for this phenomenon. The results of this study harken back to the quote from Jonathan Swift: “Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.”