Why Fake News Goes Viral: Science Explains

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People’s limited attention spans, plus the sheer overload of information on social media may combine to make fake news and hoaxes go viral, according to a new study.

Understanding why and how fake news spreads may one day help researchers develop tools to combat its spread, the researchers said.

For example, the new research points toward curbing the use of social bots — computer programs that automatically generate messages such as tweets that inundate social media with low-quality information — to prevent the spread of misinformation, the researchers said.

However, “Detecting social bots is a very challenging task,” said study co-author Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing.

Previous research has shown that some of people’s cognitive processes may help to perpetuate the spread of misinformation such as fake news and hoaxes, according to the study, published today (June 26) in the journal Nature Human Behavior. For example, people tend to show “confirmation bias” and pay attention to and share only the information that is in line with their beliefs, while discarding information that is not in line with their beliefs. Studies show that people do this even if the information that confirms their beliefs is false.

In the new study, the researchers looked at some other potential mechanisms that may be at play in spreading misinformation. The researchers developed a computer model of meme sharing to see how individual attention and the information load that social media users are exposed to affect the popularity of low-quality versus high-quality memes. The researchers considered memes to be of higher quality if they were more original, had beautiful photos or made a claim that was true.

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