Concern over bogus stories online has escalated in recent months because of evidence the Russians spread disinformation on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign to sow discord in the USA and damage Hillary Clinton.
Tweets containing false news (depicted in orange in this data visualization) spread to more people through Twitter than tweets containing true news (teal). "And you see now platforms like Facebook and others starting to do that", he says, "by reducing the visibility of accounts that are known to be spreading false news".
In the first detailed analysis of how misinformation spreads through the Twittersphere, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that false news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth.
Before we proceed, let's pause for a moment to define our terms. In other words, true facts don't get retweeted, while too-good-to-be-true claims are viral gold.
While one might think that characteristics of the people spreading the news could explain why falsity travels with greater velocity than the truth, the data revealed the opposite.
And the reason we do it, according to the researchers, is to avoid being boring. Falsehood diffused further and faster despite these differences, not because of them. It only means that the claim in the tweet is inaccurate.
The paper's attracting tons of praise in my people-who-study-fake-news Twitter list, and coauthor Aral, who is the David Austin professor of management at MIT, wrote it up for this week's New York Times Sunday Review section. From that link, the researchers backtracked through the retweet chain, which they called a cascade, to find the rumor's origin.
Between the years 2006 and 2017, these cascades included over 4.5 million tweets by about 3 million Twitter users.
While the study was funded by Twitter (which also gave the team access to its full historical tweet archives), Dr Vosoughi said it was conducted independently. Right now, incentives reward people who spread fake, attention-grabbing information.
Then the trio were ready to start making comparisons. The research said these people had less followers and were verified by Twitter "significantly less" than those sharing accurate information.
Real news takes six times as long to reach 1,500 people as fake news, said the study.
Why are we more likely to spread nonsense than the truth? Things spread through social networks because they are appealing, not because they are true. After the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a fake story circulated that the teenage survivors now advocating for gun control were "crisis actors", and research has shown that misinformation and conspiracy theories are deeply embedded in some of the most popular websites. "If someone makes up a rumour that goes against what they expected, you are more likely to pass it forward".
Of the 126,000 news stories, those centered on politics saw about 45,000 cascades. It was real people doing most of it.
False news about politics spread to 20,000 people nearly three times more quickly than any other kind of false news was able to reach just 10,000 people. They took a sample of 5,000 users known to share both true and false news stories and analysed their reaction to a random sample of 25,000 tweets.
Not all false news is created equal. Congress and the FBI are investigating evidence that Russian and other foreign users deliberately flooded social media with untrue reports and posts meant to mislead people about political candidates.
Aral and his colleagues fished through the Twitter database for a specific type of reply tweet. Using techniques to identify bots, they determined that software-run accounts spread falsehoods and truths equally.
But social media serves as the currents in which false and misleading news is swept far and wide. The situation may seem bleak, but there's nothing to gain by ignoring it.