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Social Media Lies Travel Faster Than Truth

Mal Fletcher
Posted 09 March 2018
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In news just in, there is now something more we can add to the growing list of antisocial facts relating to social media.

A new study published conducted at MIT and published in Science has found that the truth takes six times longer than fake news to be seen by 1,500 people on Twitter.

A lie is apparently also 70 percent more likely to be shared via social media in the first place.

The authors of the study, which looked at 126,000 messages spreading false stories on Twitter, suggest that fake stories on social media are “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth”.

It is quite rare, they claim, for true stories to be seen by more than 1,000 people. Meanwhile, the one percent most popular false news are routinely reaching between 1,000 and 100,000 views.

Other studies have shown the impact of social media on what is now called social disinhibition.

Because of the anonymity most platforms offer, people will use social media to insult or bully someone whom they haven't met, in a way they would never do were they confronting the person face-to-face.

There is also a tendency toward intellectual fascism on social media. Some people will fiercely defend their own right of speech and belief on social media, while denying that right to others with whom they disagree. Often, they don’t see the inherent contradiction.

Social media have, in a short space of time, become an important part of our social discourse. They offer unprecedented opportunities for communication and collaboration. They hold the potential to increase humanity’s capacity to solve pressing social and environmental problems.

In some parts of the world, national and city governments use platforms like Twitter to publish important public safety and security updates and warnings. The Japanese seismic authorities use Twitter to broadcast warnings about impending tremors and quakes.

Some politicians with helpful things to say have found a ready audience through social media which would have been denied them in traditional, mainstream media. (Of course, some prominent political figures would be best advised to stay off social media altogether.)

There are many benefits associated with social media. Few who use these platforms would want to turn back the clock to a time when information was more difficult to find or disseminate.

However, our enthusiasm for communication tools should not blind us to their potential for harming relationships and discouraging social cohesion.

Social media should not be seen as mere conduits for the spread of bland political correctness. However, they must not be allowed to become mere conduits for lies.

In recent decades, there have been numerous stories about how false rumours have impacted negatively on public responses to health crises. Today, social media offer amazing opportunities for the rapid and unfiltered spread of such dangerous rumours.

Recently, Wired magazine featured an important article on the future of the internet. It reminded us that one of the great geopolitical risks of our time is,  “a massive disease outbreak as a consequence of false information driving panic and refusal of the very interventions that could contain or prevent the spread of disease. ”

In 2017, anti-vaccination campaigns on social media in South India led to widespread public refusals of the measles-rubella vaccine. In Nigeria, rumours that eating salt and bitter melon could prevent the Ebola virus lead to the further spread of the disease.

Even before the advent of social media, this type of health-related rumour-mongering was a problem. Twenty years ago many British people refused the MMR vaccine on the basis of now-debunked autism rumours.  

Social media have simply sped up the transmission of this type of rumour and vastly increased its geographical reach.  In some cases,  social media have added weight to spurious claims by virtue of the number of people re-tweeting fake news messages.

Governments need to be much more intentional and committed when it comes to holding the owners of social platforms to account for the content they host. New media companies are the publishers and news producers of our time. They must accept the concomitant social responsibility.

Relying on these companies alone, though, will not bring the change we need. Those of us who find social media invaluable as means for adding value or promoting the common good, must step up to the plate.

Faced with a deluge of claim and counterclaim on almost every issue,  we need to listen to and read messages about our health with a healthy level of scepticism,  even when it comes to "factual" messages sent by friends. We need to do so without giving in to destructive cynicism.

We must call out those who spread falsehoods in the same way we might confront those who bully others online.

Hopefully, we will see a time when social media speaks more to our better angels than it does to our lowest urges. 

What’s your view?

Can you spot the difference between fake and real news online?



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