As it turns out, there’s a reason why some people believe that vaccines cause autism, exposure to glyphosate causes Alzheimer’s disease and genetically modified food causes allergies.
The reason is that lies spread faster than truth, especially on social media.
In a paper published March 8 in the journal Science, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that untruths posted on Twitter spread more rapidly and reached many more people than true information.
“We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” said Sinn Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of the paper.
Aral and his MIT colleagues studied how truth and lies spread online by looking at the diffusion of 126,000 true and false stories posted on Twitter from 2006-17.
False information on politics dominated the study, but the researchers also looked at false information in the areas of terrorism, business, science and entertainment.
“False news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are,” said an MIT news release on the study.
“It also takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.”
In addition to tracking the online dispersal of lies, the MIT researchers wanted to know why false information reach more people than truth.
They looked at the role of bots, or software that autonomously does things on social media such as re-tweeting and liking posts on Twitter. They found that bots play a minimal role in spreading lies. It’s mostly humans who spread lies online.
“False news is more novel and people are more likely to share novel information,” Aral said, adding people gain status on social media by posting new information, regardless if it’s true or false.
“People who share novel information are seen as being in the know,” Aral added.
The MIT study may explain why it’s become so difficult to change people’s minds when it comes to things like the safety of GM food and pesticides.
In the last five to seven years, communication experts have encouraged farmers and ag industry reps to use social media to educate the public on GM crops and other technologies used in modern agriculture.
Those efforts may have changed a few minds, but the MIT study suggests that false information about agriculture has more influence on Twitter and Facebook.
For instance, GM crops have been around for more than two decades, but the technology remains a polarizing issue.
Public polling in North America continues to show that only 40 to 50 percent of people believe that GM food is safe to eat.
Those numbers are incredibly low because the vast majority of scientists say GM food is safe.