False news can spread rapidly and extensively through social media, causing serious consequences for organizations that have a difficult time containing or correcting it. Last week, a research study published in Science, specifically studied how “true” and “false” news is spread online. Before this study, most research was either anecdotal or studied only one particular aspect of this topic, such as how rumors are propagated.
Researchers at MIT—Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral—analyzed 126,000 stories tweeted by three million people over 11 years on Twitter to see if there are different patterns in how true news and false news are disseminated. Six independent fact checking organizations, with a 95 percent to 98 percent agreement on the classifications, verified the veracity of the stories.
The researchers defined “news” as “any story or claim with an assertion in it and a rumor as the social phenomena of a news story or claim spreading or diffusing through the Twitter network.”
Vosoughi et al. purposely avoided using the term “fake news” as the researchers said this term has been misused, primarily by politicians, and has “lost all connection to the actual veracity of information presented.” Rather, the term “true” or “false” news was used.
What the Researchers Found
When the researchers analyzed how true and false rumors are spread on Twitter, they found falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than truth in all categories of information. In fact, falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth. Falsehood also reached more people than the truth thanks in part to peer-to-peer sharing, rather than tweets being broadcasted or shared by bots. Within the types of false news, political news traveled deeply and more broadly.
Why is false news more likely to be shared? False news was found to be more “novel” than true news and false stories have stronger emotional ties, conjuring fear, disgust and surprise in replies. False news may be more shocking than true news.
What the Researchers Recommend
Vosoughi et al. contend that human behavior contributes more to the spread of falsity and truth than automated robots. Therefore, labeling and incentives to dissuade the spread of misinformation are offered as two suggestions. The researchers suggest more research should be conducted on the behavioral differences or human judgments of those sharing true and false news.
What Can Public Relations Professionals Do?
False news can have serious consequences for organizations. One example given in the Science article is when $130 billion in stock value was wiped out after a false Tweet claimed Barack Obama was injured in an explosion. Therefore, public relations professionals must be diligent. Here are five tips of what they can do:
First, PR professionals must stop using the term “fake news” as it is not used exclusively to define news that is not real. Rather, “false news” is a more accurate term.
Second, PR professionals must be diligent in only sharing “true news” by verifying sources as well as reading an article prior to sharing, rather than simply reading a headline.
Third, PR professionals must be cognizant of the stories fed to the media in terms of their accuracy and authenticity (as we would expect of PR professionals).
Fourth, PR professionals must not speculate and must rely on facts. Incorrect information must be corrected immediately and false news relating to their organizations must be called out.
Fifth, PR professionals should only work with media sources (and this especially goes for paid media) that are legitimate and credible.
The study of false news is still in its infancy and research needs to be conducted more on this topic. To access the full version of the study, please visit the Science website
Tina McCorkindale, Ph.D., APR, is President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter @tmccorkindale.