The research project also discovered that humans, not bots, are primarily responsible for spreading misleading information.
An MIT researcher hopes his study of fake news will encourage other scholars to take a closer look at why humans seem hard-wired to spread false news online and seek out ways to nudge people toward the truth.
"False news is more novel and people are more likely to share novel information", said Sinan Aral in comments to MIT News.
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Researchers looked at 126,000 stories on Twitter, tweeted by around 3.5 million users more than 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017.
The effects were more pronounced for false political news (45,000 tweets) than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information.
While the spread of false news on social media has always had real world consequences - for example, leading to drops in the stock market - the 2016 USA presidential election has emerged as a watershed example of how far and wide that influence can reach. Prof Aral, Soroush Vosoughi and associate professor Deb Roy began their research in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.
They found that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories were. "So they can't be the sole reason as to why false information seems to be spreading so much faster". The stories were designated as true or false based on six independent fact-checking organisations.
Aral thinks that relevant success of false news stories on Twitter might have something to do with people's desire to say, and share, things that they find unusual or different. Twitter provided its data for the research.
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The wide-ranging study was concerned with how so-called "fake news", deliberately falsified news stories based off pure fabrication or poorly authenticated sources, spread so rapidly over the internet.
The researchers examined this "novelty hypothesis" in their research by taking a random subsample of Twitter users who propagated false stories, and analysing the content of the reactions to those stories.
"We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-co-ordination, misinformation campaigns and increasingly divisive echo chambers", tweeted Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey.
So Aral's team chose to use the term "false news" instead. Aral says the result is "very scary" in civic terms, while Roy is a bit more sanguine.
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are under big pressure to do more to stop the spread of fake news.
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He said society needs "something that would change the way they interact with social media to be more thoughtful" - a prescription he acknowledged is a tall task.
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