How Lies Spread on Social Media

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Last week I was at Skepticon 9 in beautiful Springfield, Missouri, where I gave a talk about how lies travel on social media. I like to start with a famous quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.” It’s oft attributed to Mark Twain, which makes me like the quote even more because Mark Twain probably never even said that, and if he did, he certainly wasn’t the first. That honor most likely goes to Jonathan Swift, who said something pretty close: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
But the sentiment is still very accurate, and social media has only given lies the opportunity to travel even faster, leaving truth in the dust.
This has been well-known for a long time now. One of the cool things about social media, including Facebook and Twitter, is how easy it makes it for scientists to gather a lot of data and analyze how people are talking to each other. And what they see again and again is that mistruths can spread rapidly around social media, but even when they’re corrected within minutes, that correction rarely actually reaches anywhere near the same number of people.
To make matters even worse, sometimes the correction  only makes people believe the initial mistruth even more. Especially if the correction comes with a bit of shame — for instance, Politifact using “Pants on Fire” to describe the very worst lies of some politicians, or presidents-elect, as the case may be.
So it really comes down to stopping lies from propagating in the first place, something that’s incredibly difficult and is often made even more difficult by the marketing decisions that social media sites make. Social media sites don’t generally have a good reason to stop lies from spreading — they often make money based on whether or not you will click on something, and so they benefit from showing you whatever will make you click, regardless of if it’s true or not. And studies show that lies  get clicked on more often on Facebook than truths. 
That’s why Facebook has borne the brunt of people’s anger about lies spreading in the leadup to the US presidential election, since Trump campaigned almost exclusively on lies–lies about Obama’s birth certificate, lies about global warming, lies about things he’s said publicly and on record. And he won. Social media obviously isn’t entirely to blame for Trump, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t examine how it affected things.
For instance, Facebook had the ability to remove fake news stories that started trending on their platform, but they decided to stop the program  when they realized that it disproportionately affected right wing sources. In other words, the majority of the misinformation was coming from conservatives, so they didn’t stop it because they didn’t want to look biased.
Facebook and Google  both recently announced plans to stop fake news sites from using their ad programs, but of course that doesn’t begin to touch the direct links to these sites that trend thanks to gullible users and nefarious assholes who are exploiting them. These sites have to take responsibility for the spread of seriously damaging misinformation and tweak their algorithms, regardless of whether or not it offends the homeopaths, the psychic friends network, or the GOP.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Rebecca Watson,

    I wish Facebook had used that program to block fake news, but even so, I’m not sure it would have done enough to stop Trump from becoming the next president. Man, the next for years is going to be a nightmare.

  2. There is a difference between an outright lie, and a story told with facts (but maybe not ALL the facts) in such a way as to promote a given viewpoint. The widely reported poll data which prompted odds makers to give Hillary Clinton a 90% chance of winning the Presidency comes to mind.

    I believe most people understand the technical difference between lies and spin, but don’t believe there is much effective difference when it comes to an election campaign that focuses on personality rather than policies. Add to this for the 2016 election that the majority of journalism’s anointed opinion-meisters labeled supporters of racism, misogyny, etc. anyone who expressed the slightest distaste for Hillary Clinton (a candidate Glenn Greenwald described as “a deeply unpopular, extremely vulnerable, scandal-plagued candidate, who—for very good reason—was widely perceived to be a protector and beneficiary of all the worst components of status quo elite corruption”), because a vote for anyone other than Clinton was a vote for Trump, and it’s not hard to understand why many people simply stopped listening.

    I’ve often expressed the sentiment in my comments here that name calling and sarcasm aren’t always effective tactics for changing people’s minds. You may find others’ beliefs abhorrent, but saying that out loud with maximum snark isn’t going to win you any brownie points outside of those who agree with you.

    1. I gotta disagree with you on a number of things.
      1. Outright lies were plentiful and often presented as news. That’s kinda new. The owner of one fake news site, is quoted as saying “I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact check anything.”
      2. The most rigorous anlaysis, 538’s gave a much more conservative estimate than 90% odds to Clinton: 74%. A 25% chance happens. 1/4 odds happen all the time.
      3. A great deal(though not absolutely 100%) of Hillary Clinton’s “scandal plagues” were exactly the kind of fabrication that’s poisoning American discourse. There was substance to all of a couple claims made against her, but people didn’t know that because the news items people like Brietbart published were “Hillary Clinton directly responsible for the death of my son.” It was in no way, shape, or form true. But it convinced a lot of people that Hillary Clinton was somehow involved.

      I know you’re trying to help by explaining how you think people are being overbearing, but lies, sexism, and racism were tremendous problems in this election. And the people in the “middle” not aware that their friends were sharing flagrant lies do need to be educated about it.

      And that’s what we skeptics do for our activism. Educate. I don’t know. It feels like fake news is right in our wheelhouse.

      1. C’mon. Who’s kidding who here? Trump’s win in this election absolutely STUNNED the majority of people in this country who rely on traditional media outlets for their news. You don’t find the extreme disparity between the predictions and the result a bit suspect?

        I agree that debunking “fake” news–hell, fake ANYTHING–is exactly in the wheelhouse of skeptics. I spent (wasted?) more time in the past year correcting all the bullshit sent my way by conservative friends, family and acquaintences than in the previous ten years combined. But in doing so I never suggested someone is a racist because they were critical of Black Lives Matter or promoted restrictions on Muslim immigrants, or that someone who doesn’t believe there is a crisis of campus rape is engaged in a war on women, or people who are skeptical of the “solutions” offered to mitigate AGW are climate change deniers.

        I didn’t lose any friends or stop speaking to any of my family members because of my disagreements with them, despite the lengthy correspondence I had with many. I was able to elicit concessions from most when I pointed out obviously, ridiculously fake news. But the fact is the vast majority of conservatives I know who voted for Trump weren’t voting for Trump, per se, they were voting AGAINST Clinton and/or FOR a serious shake up in DC–they believed voting for Trump was the best way to send a message to career politicians whom they viewed as no longer representitive of them. And the cherry on top: putting Trump in the White House was a kick in the crotch for every mainstream journalist who called them racist/misogynist/ignorant/red neck/etc., and who, ultimately, failed to understand the real reason for Trump’s ascendancy.

        1. I dunno. Us Berners were saying she’d lose the Midwest over NAFTA. We were saying the email thing would be an issue, even if there were nothing there. We were saying spending your money trying to turn the South blue was a waste of time, that Southern states went (R) now for the same reason they have since Goldwater. I hate being right.

  3. There’s also politically motivated lies. They can even happen from people in the same party. (Right now, Daily Kos is full of people shamelessly attacking the left wing of the Democratic Party. Because that’s exactly who voted for Drumpf, the left wing of the Democrats. The white nationalists were completely innocent. Who knew?)

  4. As noble and important the goal of reducing the spread of false information is, there are very big dangers in asking/expecting a major corporation to censor content. Would it have censored those challenging the mainstream reporting on the Iraq WMD claims as ‘fake’? Would censoring right-wing fake news cause more virulent belief in a media conspiracy? Would it lead to more restrictions on what they consider ‘news’ sites, such that this very blog could end up on a blacklist?
    I don’t have a better solution myself, but I think it’s important to be mindful of unintended consequences.

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