Why are we so easily mislead by fake news?

It’s official: lies spread faster than the truth. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology just published a study confirming it. The study, which took data from over 120,000 stories, from around three million people, tweeted more than 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017. The study claims to have verified whether the stories were true or false using “information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98 per cent agreement on the classifications.”

So, why are we so easily mislead?

“Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” said the study, “and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.”

Researchers suggest that the issue has to do with fake news stories often being more dramatic or heart-wrenching than real ones. That ‘you can’t make this stuff up’ vibe does affect what we believe. Clickbait titles draw people in and they share often without reading the article in question, or without checking the credibility of the site from which they are sharing. Even though it has now been proven that fake news stories had a serious effect on the 2016 U.S. presidential elections — and probably a few other ones as well — people continue to share questionable news stories and rumors as if they are facts set in stone.

If you’ve ever found yourself hesitating before hitting the retweet button, MIT’s study would suggest you are in the minority. The study showed that the top one per cent of fake news stories spread to anywhere from between 1,000 to 100,000 people, whereas true stories rarely spread beyond 1000. The only solution to the problem, aside from Facebook’s attempts to rewrite their algorithms to save us all from ourselves, is to take a moment before sharing something to decide if it’s really worth it.

First you must consider the source. Are you getting your information from a reputable news outlet or is it a random website, like the ones with all of those news stories about dead celebrities who are not actually dead down at the bottom? Being from a less prestigious website does not necessarily make the story automatically fake, but it does lessen the likelihood that they have access to advanced fact checking systems or actual interviews with the individuals in question.

Next, consider the angle. There are some theoretically reputable news sources who have a distinct political angle that they pursue. They might then choose to frame a story in a way that suggests certain things that may not be accurate, even though they appear to be supported by the facts. A lie by omission is still a lie, and lots of organizations do that.

Third, other bias factors exist. For example, in the lead up to their recent issue about race, National Geographic decided to re-examine their previous coverage of race issues. They found themselves as an organization to have been racist in their past coverage and to have published information that was based on racial biases. They’re working to correct the issue now, but many other organizations have not taken the time to examine their own biases and work toward correcting for them. They might not be purposefully discriminating, but it happens anyway.

When you want to share something, stop and think. When we rush to be the first to tweet or share a big story, we can often miss the clues that tell us that it is not real. Think before you tweet.

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