Fake news travels six times faster than real stories
It is said that a lie will travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its boots - and scientists have now proved this is true.
The adage, variously attributed to Mark Twain and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a 19th century London preacher, was coined way before the advent of social networks and 24-hour rolling news on television and radio.
A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found that false stories spread more rapidly on Twitter and reach a much wider audience.
Experts called the finding "very scary".
Analysis of online stories found that fake news was 70pc more likely to be retweeted and that true stories took six times longer to reach people.
Deb Roy, Twitter's chief media scientist from 2013 to 2017, and now an associate professor at MIT, said the team was "somewhere between surprised and stunned" by the findings.
The study was inspired after Dr Soroush Vosoughi, of MIT, saw tweets claiming that an eight-year-old girl who ran the Boston Marathon in 2013 and who had been running in memory of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, was among those killed when two bombs exploded. It was false - children are not allowed to take part.
Another story said a woman died in the attacks just as her boyfriend was about to propose.
"I realised a good chunk of what I read on social media was rumours," he said. "It was false news."
The team tracked 126,000 Twitter cascades (or network trees) of real and fake stories involving politics, urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment and natural disasters. Professor Sinan Aral, of MIT's Sloan School of Management, said: "We found that falsehoods defuse significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories."
He said the team was surprised to find the spread of fake news was driven more by humans "intrigued by novelty" than by computer codes programmed to spread inaccurate stories.
"False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information," he said. "And people can gain attention by being the first to share previously unknown - but possibly false - information. They are seen as being 'in the know'." This was tested by analysing reactions to retweeted falsehoods.
Dr Vosoughi said: "People respond to false news more with surprise and disgust, whereas true stories produce sadness, anticipation, and trust."
The study showed that although some people were deliberately spreading false news, many did so unwittingly, suggesting the phenomenon was not always driven by malicious intent.
The results of the study were published in the journal 'Science'. (© Daily Telegraph, London)