Mark Twain said that a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. Actually, that itself is a lie – Twain probably said no such thing and the true origins of the quote remain murky. Nonetheless, thanks to recent research into the spread of (mis)information on Twitter, we now know that lies spread more rapidly than facts – and it seems mostly to do with our appetite for novelty.
In a study published in early 2018 in the journal Science, three researchers at MIT analysed around 126,000 stories tweeted by around three million people between 2006 and 2017. Crucially, these stories had all been verified as true or false by six fact-checking websites, including snopes.com and factcheck.org. By comparing the tweets, the researchers found that the lies travelled faster and farther than the truth. For instance, true tweets rarely reached more than 1,000 people, whereas the most widely shared false tweets reached as many as 100,000 people. Falsehoods were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than the truth, and it took true tweets six times as long as lies, on average, to reach 1,500 people.
A possible explanation for this spread of misinformation was that the lies were being disseminated by more popular or active Twitter users. But the researchers found the opposite to be true: the typical user involved in spreading falsehoods tended to have comparatively few followers and showed relatively little activity on the site. We can’t blame bots (automatic accounts) either – the results held true even after the researchers re-analysed their results with tweets by bots removed.
So what was it about the false tweets that made them so shareable? Analysing the content of the tweets themselves, the MIT team found that lies tended to be more novel and exciting than the truth. The lies were also better at triggering an emotional response – tweets that users sent in reply to a lie often contained words conveying their surprise or disgust.
“It’s well known that novelty attracts human attention … novelty encourages information sharing not only because it’s more surprising and valuable – so we think our peers will appreciate receiving it – but because it conveys social status on the sharer, who is seen as being ‘in the know’ or as having access to unique ‘inside information’,” says Prof Sinan Aral, who led the study. So not only do lies push our emotional buttons, but sharing them makes us feel good, too.
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This research didn’t explicitly address the question of why so many of us are fooled by lies in the first place. Presumably we wouldn’t share lies so often if we knew they were fake. Alas, decades of research in psychology has shown that we simply aren’t that good at judging the information we encounter. We don’t like thinking too hard, so we’ll jump to conclusions (we are ‘cognitive misers’), and we’re swayed by superficial factors like how easy it is to understand a claim, how popular it appears to be, and whether it supports our pre-existing prejudices.
So whoever it was who said that lies travel fast was right… now we just need to find a way of stopping them.
This is an extract from issue 330 of BBC Focus magazine.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.