The Grim Consequences from Studying Fake News

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” – Jonathan Swift

The recent recognition that false or fake news propagates isn’t new, and the idea that it travels faster than truth isn’t either. Jonathan Swift knew this in 1729, and there’s good evidence that Solomon recognized it throughout the book of Proverbs.

So, what you thought was going on in life, really is.

Actually measuring this was difficult until an MIT study of Twitter was recently published in Science and summarized both in The Atlantic (Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News) and on The Verge.

Grim Conclusions

The study covering 126,000 stories, tweeted by some 3 million users over more than 10 years, revealed that fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does.

While false stories outperform the truth on every subject – including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment – fake news about politics regularly does best. It appears that Twitter users almost prefer sharing falsehoods – falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news. (While Twitter was studied, the results also have strong implications for preferences on every major social network). (Not mentioned, however, are the Grim Consequences for preferences in our daily lives – more below).

The bigger question now is Why?

One of the authors, Soroush Vosoughi, suggested, “It might have something to do with human nature.”

Understatement.

The study also prompted an essay in Science (discussed in The Atlantic here) alarms from social scientists for further research, particularly, “to address the underlying pathologies it (the study) has revealed.” (Note: Pathologies: “mental, social, or linguistic abnormalities or malfunctions.” In other words, human issues).

There’s a mixed bag here. Human Nature is what we normally do, whether good or bad; Pathologies indicate there are one or more abnormalities occurring above and beyond what we normally do (one suspects this probably means really bad bads). Pathologies we can try to identify, address, and treat; Human Nature, well, easier to identify than to treat.

Let me scoot out on a limb and see if a number of known concepts can be connected with the observations from the study (that are well summarized in the article in The Atlantic).

First, a selection of knowns (neither good or bad – they just are),

Bubbles

At some point we have to deal with reality. We have to actually realize, if not actually admit, that we each live in a Bubble, a reasonably comfortable environment that encompasses our lives. This is sort of a known known, although frequently ignored. It involves not only the choices of where and how we live, what we do, but also the people we comfortably interact with, and in particular, how we think. In other words, it’s our cultural environment, our Worldview experienced locally. One could also call it a social neighborhood, with some activities and material things thrown in.

Most important though is that, for the most part, we recognize that it’s comfortable, or at least we’re accustomed to it. One could also make the case that we create and maintain our Bubble by including only what is comfortable. That’s the known known part. (We’ll come back to additional thoughts a bit later).

What we’re less conscious of is the fact that there are other Bubbles out there, somewhere yet everywhere. We slip into the casual error of …

Solipsism

That’s where we assume everyone else is just like us; that their Bubbles are just like ours. The whole kit and caboodle. Especially how they think.

While we might realize that there are other, different Bubbles, we don’t consciously dwell on it. And this leads to the existence of, and invariably the ignoring of …

Missing Information

Most of the time we don’t know what we don’t know, and don’t even know that. This is sort of an unknown unknown, and therefore it doesn’t seem to bother us in our Bubbles, at least until …

The moment we’re somehow exposed to something unexpected, whether it is an event or information (which for the moment, could be either false or true). Then,

  • When we are hit with an unexpected event, it basically collides with our Bubble. The surprise collision puts a dent in our Bubble, and is a threat to do more permanent damage. This is just not comfortable and typically we try immediately to find out why, seeking to determine what caused it or who is to blame. We try to identify missing information, and if nothing concrete is readily available, we will create something. This will either be false or incomplete because our nature is to fill this void fast with something, anything, rather than take time to seek and fill it with the best or correct thing. And if the void is not completely filled, we continue to seek more missing information. All this to save our Bubble!
  • If we are hit with some new information, we try and make sense of it (unless it is so far outside our Bubble that we ignore it). If it does not make sense we will seek or create additional information to help it make sense.
  • In both cases, this new or created information, whether false or true, flows into the voids of Missing Information in our Bubble, into the dents. It’s like filling a dent in a car body with epoxy, sanding it down and painting it so no one can see the damage.
  • For this information to flow into the voids, it passes through a very significant filter known as Confirmation Bias. Everyone has this, and it describes our nature to more selectively receive new information that serves to confirm what we already believe we know. It works to preserve Bubble consistency.

Gap Theory

  • Because there’s an urgency to fill these voids NOW, we reflexively or intuitively grab whatever information “stuff” is at hand (or can be created) either to fill the void or to push out the dent in our Bubble. The alternative is to take a lot longer to rationally seek, find, and filter the right information to fill the void or repair the dent by incorporating verifiable truth. Gap Theory says we won’t wait or take the time; Human Nature says, “Repair the gaps in the Bubble’s wall NOW!”
  • There is another potential reason that we sometimes avoid the longer seek-and-confirm process, and that is we can’t or won’t accommodate the growth, learning, or change that would result from accepting the new information. Absorbing into our Bubble anything that is incompatible will cause the Bubble to stretch uncomfortably, or burst. We have to force or coerce other Bubbles to merge with ours, or eliminate the threat of having to merge with theirs.  It’s an old refrain recognized in organizations that can be traced to its true origin, the individual:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If it agrees with me, it’s fine;
If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s a threat because it’s wrong, and I have to tell others.

That’s a simple description of a common process, one I wager we’ve all experienced (or practiced surreptitiously) whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Returning to the Grim Consequences of the Twitter study. To pursue this reliably, the authors had to answer a preliminary question first: What is truth? And how do we know? For this they developed a way to look at all the tweet data, basically with a complex filter: What were the properties of the author (were they verifiable?); What was the kind of language that was used (was it sophisticated? – In my words, was it rational and thought out, or more intuitive and emotional?); and How did a given tweet propagate through the network?

This ultimately led to another important question: How does the computer know what truth is? The authors opted to turn to the “ultimate arbiter” of facts online: third-party fact-checking sites, including Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.org. These sites formed the “verification processes” that in Gap Theory would eventually uncover the truth.

As described, there are two more or less extreme paths for a tweet to get 10,000 retweets (i.e., propagation in a network). If a celebrity who has a couple of million followers (think of these as adjacent or overlapping Bubbles) sends tweet A, perhaps 10,000 people will see the tweet and decide to retweet it. This would be a wide but shallow pattern.   The other extreme is if someone without many followers sends tweet B that goes out to their 20 followers, one of whom retweets it, and then one of their followers (think non-adjacent non-overlapping Bubbles) retweets it, on and on until 10,000 people have seen it and shared it. This would be both a wide and deep pattern.

Results of the study showed that Fake News dominates according to both patterns above. It consistently reaches a larger audience and it tunnels much deeper into social networks than real news does. Accurate news wasn’t able to chain together more than 10 retweets; Fake News could put together a retweet chain 19 links long, and do it 10 times faster than accurate news could put together a chain of 10 retweets.

Why does falsehood do so well? The authors settled on two hypotheses.

First, Fake News seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the 60-day previous stream of the user’s tweets.

This appears to be the appearance of some form of Missing Information that is either not consistent with the user’s Bubble of information, or is confirming of what has been rejected and is outside the user’s Bubble.

Second, Fake News evokes much more emotion that the average tweet. Using a sentiment analysis tool, the authors found that Fake News tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust.

Following the observation above, the newly introduced (Missing) Information that is opposed to their value system (worldview or moral matrix Bubble) therefore demands not only an immediate reaction (i.e., close the Gap quickly) but a negative emotional one (it’s disgusting) as well.

There is correlation here between these research results and results from Moral Foundations Theory 1. In MFT studies, groups of people whose value systems (moral matrices, Bubbles) were primarily based on the two foundations of Care and Liberty often felt disgust towards people whose value systems (moral matrices, Bubbles) were more broadly based on all six foundations (Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity). In fact, there were instances where people with primarily Care and Liberty values felt that other more broadly based value systems (Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity) were in fact immoral! 2

The takeaway here is that false/unchecked tweet/posted content that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster, more deeply and more broadly on Twitter (and by inference not yet studied, also on other social media) than content that does not.

(In the two weeks of writing this post, three additional non-Twitter examples of Falsehood Propagation appeared: one attempting to discredit student leaders after the Parkland, FL shootings (How A Conspiracy video on YouTube went viral on its own); another about misusing Facebook in Myanmar (Facebook has now turned into a beast, UN investigators say); and a third very interesting one about whether an astronaut’s DNA had been altered by his time in space (How Did Astronaut DNA Become Fake News), the latter based on misunderstanding of the difference between gene mutation and gene expression, which I got around to discussing here, eventually.)

The Grim Conclusion, apparently, is that we should be surprised that this behavior shows up so strongly on Twitter. However, it should not be a surprise, because of a similar process historically known to follow the same patterns. If Falsehood Propagation is practiced around the bridge, dinner, or meeting table or in groups of two or more, what we call gossip, it should be no surprise that it shows up on other venues that are less accountable and more easily and often anonymously accessible, such as Twitter or any other major social network.

That conclusion presumes the study data point to Twitter, or social networks in general, as the culprits. False Conclusion. I propose that the culprit Possession Arrow (sorry, it’s March Madness time) should point in the opposite direction – to us as individuals, to our Human Nature and the choices we make. This, then, is the …

Grim Consequence

We all live in the Bubbles3 of our own value systems, our own moral matrices, and our own Worldviews, each constructed by our cultures and protected primarily through our own choosing. The Grim Consequence is that we affect, if not infect, everyone around us, from family to clans, to tribes, to organizations, to nations. The infectious bug  is simple:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If it agrees with me, it’s fine;
If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s a threat because it’s wrong, and I have to tell others.

Treating the bug begins with us as individuals. This is an opportunity where our rational mind can and needs to step up and choose to overrule our underlying intuitive (and Bubble protected) emotions. Identifying the process is simple; pursuing it is a more difficult journey:

  • Recognize – The Bubble (and its compartments) are real;
  • Resolve – Choose to change areas in order to grow;
  • “Repent” – Turn to become Forward Looking rather than stick with Past Protecting;
  • Renew – Embrace change for growth;
  • Redemption – Arrival at a better place
  • Rinse, Repeat – Pick another compartment …

It’s not just about threats and/or dents to our Bubbles. Either we choose to recognize and manage the situations where we’re confronted with less than accurate information or information that conflicts with our Bubbles, or we will have to wait for another 50,000 years for slow selection in the gene pool to improve our behavior 4.

Why not choose to do it now?

1   The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt (Vintage Books, New York, 2012). “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” – The New York Times Book Review.

2   The Righteous Mind, pp 334.

3   Our Bubbles also have what I’ll call “compartments.” Three of these are nicely summarized (as “bubbles”) in the March 21st blog post by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak:

  • Virtual bubbles: social media echo chambers;
  • Institutional bubbles: organizational echo chambers; and
  • Affinity bubbles: the kind of people we like to hang out with.

4   The Righteous Mind, pp 250, 255.

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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 11: Growth, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Bubbles, Gap Theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Grim Consequences from Studying Fake News

  1. Difficult to know if this post reinforces by own confirmation bias! Or if my bubble and yours are identical!

    Like

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