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“Fake News” Spreading like Wildfire as a result of Information Cascades

In the recent years of the “information age,” social media giant Twitter has become one of the most common forms of news. Twitter has brought many benefits to the way mainstream society interacts with media. Information and news is now made more readily available, and each person has the whole twitter information network at their disposal. Most significantly, each and every individual on the app has the ability to be heard, as a single popular tweet from an ordinary citizen could be seen by millions and millions of people. This incredibly democratic platform has its drawbacks, however, allowing misinformation, also known as “fake news,” to spread like wildfire. According to a CNBC news article, in a study done by Sinan Aral of MIT, it was proven that on Twitter, people almost always tend to spread false information more so than the truth. In fact,“‘it took the truth about six times as long as falsehoods to reach 1,500 people.’” Unfortunately, we have reached an age where it can be difficult to sort through competing stories to decide which of them is truthful. There is such a mass amount of information available from a seemingly infinite amount of sources, that sometimes people tend to believe what they read first simply out of convenience. This compares to a time, say 30 years ago, when there were less competing media sources, and they almost always were sharing the truth. The reality nowadays is that most people don’t have the time to fact check everything they read.

Attempting to further determine how truths and lies differentiate in how they spread, Aral’s team at MIT examined “126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times,” and found that “false news stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories were.” Additionally, and even more significantly, “untrue stories also had more staying power, carrying onto more ‘cascades,’ or unbroken re-tweet chains.” Information cascades, as discussed in INFO 2040, are situations where each individual makes a decision based off of the decisions of others while ignoring their own personal information. These cascades happen when a number of individuals imitate others based off their idea of “the wisdom of the crowd,” or that if a large number of people believe something, it must be correct. This “herd behavior” is very dangerous in an example like the spreading of misinformation on Twitter. People simply believe that a false piece of information is true because of the number of retweets or likes it has. The reasons for how easily false news is spread is uncertain, but most likely has to do with the average person’s tendency to retweet something that they find more interesting. Spreaders of false information prey on this tendency, and try to make their misinformation as controversial as possible while still remaining feasible. This dangerous trend is only going to become more of a reality as our world becomes increasingly interconnected through social media, and more outside forces recognize the potential power of the media.


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