Truth Can't Compete With Lies On Social Media

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News


“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Mark Twain

Twain’s observation about how fast lies travel and how truth is left in the dust is truer today than during his life in the late 1800s. Today, those lies travel with the speed of electronic and social media communications reaching people in even the most remote corners of the world.

A deep, extensive study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looked at more than 125,000 stories that had been shared by 3 million Twitter users over the decade between 2006 and 2016. It found that falsehoods, misinformation and outright lies traveled six times faster reaching far more people than the truth.

MIT scientists found that from the time a false story is created on Twitter until it reaches 1,500 users takes about 60 hours. A true story takes nearly 10 hours to reach that same number of followers.

“While true news stories almost never got retweeted to 1,000 people, the top 1 percent of the false ones got to as many as 100,000 people,” Seth Borenstein reports for the Associated Press. And, the lies spread much deeper into society than truth.

What happens with that lie is that it branches out, traveling from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to YouTube to conversations with family and friends. It seeps into the consciousness where it takes root as truth, despite later being shown to be a falsehood.

While much of the blame today for “fake news” spreading is blamed on bots - the computer algorithms that push stories out across the internet far faster than humans are able – they aren’t to blame. MIT”s study found that those bots were just as likely to spread true stories as false stories. The reason false stories spread on Twitter so quickly was placed squarely on its human users.

“It might have something to do with human nature,” MIT data scientist Soroush Vosoughi said. It may have something to do with our craving for information that supports what we already believe, or our attention to the sensational, or our gullibility.

The willingness to believe the false stories is particularly strong when it comes to politics, but stories about war, terrorism, the economy, and entertainment also see the heightened levels of distribution.
There are many sources of fake news. It can come from the guy who gets a kick out of all the people he can make look like fools for falling for an obviously false and outrageous story. It is a prank and the more hits it gets, the more satisfying to the creator. Get the media to fall for it, and you’ve hit the jackpot. It goes viral and clicks on your lie equals revenue in your pocket from the advertisers who pay based on views.

There are also those with a darker purpose. People who want to sow discord among the American population, sway election results, and those who seek to discredit individuals and institution with whom they disagree.

These bad actors are both domestic and foreign.

Why are the findings of this study significant?

America’s strength is its stable democracy and an accurately informed electorate that votes for its leaders from local city councils to the president of the United States.

Its strength is based on a general agreement that we must trust the news media to provide insight into the actions of our leaders and our government. But today fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers or watching mainstream news outlets. Instead, they go to their social media sources on their phones or computers. They read Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and others for “news.” Too often that news turns out to be false or misleading.

“We must redesign our information ecosystem in the 21st century,” a group of 16 political scientists and legal scholars wrote in Science magazine. “How can we create a news ecosystem ... that values and promotes truth?” they ask.

We thought the internet would provide us with a wealth of options for information that would broaden our knowledge of the world. It has done just the opposite. It has allowed us to find like-minded people and shut out those whose opinions we reject. It narrows our view and hardens our prejudices. It has proven to be, as the MIT study shows, a medium that can be manipulated.

Social media companies have made half-hearted attempts to address the problems and give us soothing platitudes about their good intentions. But views on their sites are worth billions in advertising dollars. If those views happen to be false, it’s not their responsibility to sort lie from truth, they say.

A few weeks ago, we filmed a program for Pioneer Public Television’s Compass program on whether or not fake news was having an impact on rural news providers. Steve Linder, president of Lakeland Broadcasting in Willmar, was there as well. We agreed that our local news isn’t subject to the creation of false and misleading information – we are too small a market.

However, it is having an impact on the trust and acceptance of the news we provide when it touches on state and national issues. We see the Balkanization of America. We are being split into hardened camps with bitter feelings towards each other’s points of view, even at the local level.

Print is held to a far higher standard for truth. Reporters that make mistakes have to print corrections. Reporters are required to have multiple, reliable sources, for their stories and editors question them to ensure they have it right. Reporters who knowingly report misleading information are fired. Newspapers get sued for printing news that turns out to be false. On the internet, you can say just about anything without getting sued.

Still, trust in print is being eroded by the fake news we see on the internet and by politicians who tear down newspapers when their performance, ethics, and honesty are questioned. Americans were supposed to be enriched by a “marketplace of ideas.” It appears we are being enslaved by fake news and by a fixation on entertainment over knowledge about how our democracy works.

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