Study shows Facebook spreads nonsense more effectively than fact

There’s a huge amount of nonsense published online, along with a lot of useful, factual information. The internet is both a treasure trove of knowledge and a repository for convincing-sounding fiction, and the viral nature of the medium means that – to paraphrase the old expression – a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. Now we have a scientific study in how true that is in a digital era, when the truth can at least break into a sprint trying to catch up with misinformation.

Study shows Facebook spreads nonsense more effectively than fact

Or so you’d hope, but

the study from scientists in Italy and America suggests it may not be as clear-cut as that. Although both fact and fiction can spread across the same channels, it appears the mechanism of Facebook is better suited to nonsense.

To test this, the researchers watched 67 Facebook groups between 2010 and 2014: 35 of these were on the topic of science news, while 32 were concerned with conspiracy theories and areas of scientific denial. Two additional control groups were observed that disseminated trolling articles. Every update posted was analysed for how followers of the group interacted with it.facebook_logo_viral_spread

At first, it seemed pretty much the same. Most posts saw a flurry of activity within the first 120 minutes of posting, and then a second wave after 20 hours. In general, the shares were from sympathetic voices amplifying something that they agreed with – as you’d expect.

It’s over the long term that serious differences were observed. While the science news had a relatively short tail, petering out quickly, conspiracy theories tended to grow momentum more slowly, but have a much longer tail. They stick around for a longer period of time, meaning they can reach far more people.

Then there’s another problem with the way Facebook works – the much-discussed echo-chamber effect. This effect is far more active in Facebook than in other networks, with algorithms favouring content from people and groups you regularly interact with. So if you share, Like or even click on conspiracy theories a lot, you’re more likely to be shown them in future, reinforcing the misinformation, rather than challenging it.

Of course Facebook isn’t the same as other networks, but given the propensity of people to retweet fictional memes without checking the facts, it could be even worse elsewhere. The lesson here? Well, if there is one to be had, maybe be sceptical of what you read online… especially if your social network of choice thinks it’ll make you happy.

READ NEXT: The science of scientific denial

Images: Acid Pix and C_osett  used under Creative Commons

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