The full study has been published online in the journal Science. Though bots also present a problem, the researchers found they are not exclusively to blame. All things considered, fake news was found to be about 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. In 2013, for example, someone hacked the Associated Press Twitter account and falsely tweeted that Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 140 points and kicked off 4 minutes of panic on the trading floor.
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Researchers arrived at this conclusion after examining around 126,000 tweet cascades - families of tweets consisting of one original tweet and every retweet spawned from it.
While the majority of tweets studied didn't go much farther than around 1000 people, the top 1 percent of tweets managed to reach an audience of up to 100000 users. For comparison, urban legends had 30,000.
The number of minutes it takes for true (green) and false (red) rumor cascades to reach any (E) depth and (F) number of unique Twitter users.
The role of social media in spreading misinformation, propelled by bots has been heavily scrutinized since the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016.
For its study, the MIT team perused six fact-checking Web sites-snopes.com, politifact.com, factcheck.org, truthorfiction.com, hoax-slayer.com and urbanlegends.about.com-for common news stories and rumors those sites had examined. The more factual information included despite one glaring falsehood, the algorithm will still promote since it can't determine if it is true or false. "News, on the other hand, is an assertion with claims, whether it is shared or not".
At first the researchers thought that bots might be responsible, so they used sophisticated bot-detection technology to remove social media shares generated by bots. The results were the same.
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The study also found you couldn't blame the spread of false information on bot networks or on a few troublemakers with large followings. Adjusting for automated accounts didn't change the frequency with which false news completely dominated the ecosystem.
Humans are the worst: The researchers found that robots spread accurate news at the same rate as the fake stuff.
But this method may have missed other, more subtle ways of spreading false news, said Professor Bruns. To that end, they measured the "information uniqueness" of rumors and discovered that false rumors were more likely to contain new, but wrong, information.
The truth tended to elicit sadness, anticipation, joy and trust.
According to the analysis, true stories take six times as long to reach 1,500 people than fake news, and 20 times as long if a false story has already been retweeted more than 10 times.
"This study shows what's going on".
"We're not saying that bots did not have an effect, but bots can not explain everything", Dr Vosoughi said.
That will involve studying user responses to flags or alerts applied to information.
Along those lines, note that Twitter this week posted an opening for a new position, director of social science, whose duties will include "act as liaison between the broader research community and Twitter" and helping to "identify, support, and develop partnerships with external researchers".