False news spreads on Twitter much faster than truth. Researchers at MIT have published the results of research into 126,000 fact-checkable stories tweeted or retweeted between 2006 and 2017 (bit.ly/false-t).
True stories rarely reached more than 1000 people through retweeting; the top 1% of false-news tweet-cascades got to 10,000 or more.
True reports took six times as long as falsehoods to reach 15,000 people. Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than truths.
This was not because false-news tweeters were generally more active than truth-tweeters. On the contrary, they were less active, had been on Twitter for less time, and had fewer followers.
The best guess is that falsehoods spread faster because they were more “novel” and stirred up more aggressive emotions — surprise and disgust — while the truths elicited sadness, joy, or anticipation.
Politics is the bulkiest subject-area for false news, and false-news tweets have increased in number quicker than true tweets.
Thus the drenching of political life, especially in the USA, with false claims half-believed or quarter-believed, but in any case widely spread. Around 30 to 40% of registered Republicans in the USA still say that Barack Obama was born outside the USA, and became president only thanks to a conspiracy to ignore the US law which says presidents must be born in the country.
49% of Republicans reckon it either definitely or probably true that “leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staffers contained code words for paedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse”.
Readers of Solidarity will recognise the equivalents, within the activist left, of the malign rumours there used in competition between bourgeois parties.
Some of this is not new. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”, wrote Jonathan Swift in 1710, and other versions of the adage have been famously (though apparently wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain.
Socialists frequently talk of “the lies of the bourgeois media”, and with good cause. Paradoxically, though, the rise of mass-circulation newspapers, radio, and TV probably (at least in bourgeois-democratic countries) diminished the speed-advantages of falsehood over truth, compared both to Swift’s time when rumour spread mostly by word of mouth and today when it spreads by social media.
Bourgeois newspapers and TV channels falsify mostly by omission, selection, slanting, and twisting, rather than by direct falsehood. Concerned, to some extent or another, for reputations which have to survive over years, and open to criticism by competitors available in the same outlets (sometimes including the socialist press), they cannot lie as recklessly as the malicious or easily-swayed tweeter.
The decline in newspaper-reading, and the rise in the number of people who get news only or mainly through social media, creates obstacles for democrats and socialists.
It is not a product of technology alone. Technology also brings the fact-checking websites used by the MIT researchers, which enable us to check dubious stories much more readily than people could in Swift’s word-of-mouth days. It brings the availability on the web of a range of serious bourgeois newspapers from across the world, such as previously only a few customers of a few special newspaper shops in a few cities could read.
If we want to pass on scuttlebutt uncritically or even eagerly, these days we can do that quicker. If we want to check, we can do that quicker too.
It may well be the counter-revolution, rather than the revolution, that primarily gets tweeted. The revolution will prevail when socialists can convince a sufficient body of labour-movement people to think, to check, to read critically.