In 1855, Charles Spurgeon quoted what he called an “old proverb” about the truth and falsehoods: “A lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.”
That has never been more true than it is today in the digital world.
A new study published in Science found that false news spread farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than real news.
Fake news is more likely than truth to go viral. On average it reaches 1,500 people six times faster than a real story.
A tweet containing a fake story was 70 more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.
We can’t blame bots
The easiest way to dismiss this type of news would be to pass it off as the work of software robots manufactured to spread fake news or Russian trolls working to sabotage our society.
But the research discovered that bots spread real news at the same rate they spread fake news.
The reality is that humans, actual people interacting online, are the main culprits behind the spread of false information.
Blame politics …
While fake news spread faster than real news on Twitter, fake political news spread the fastest of all.
The study found it to be the most viral of any category of false information. It reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of false news reached 10,000 people.
But the researchers found the fake political news wasn’t a top-down phenomenon. It didn’t originate with an established hyper-partisan with thousands of followers.
Fake political news was spread primarily through users with few followers, who followed fewer people, and who were less active on Twitter.
It’s the everyday person who tweets occasionally and only follows a handful of people that most often causes fake news to go viral.
But blame our emotions, too.
False stories are much more likely to evoke feelings of surprise, fear, and disgust. True stories, on the other hand, generate anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust.
Virtually everyone on social media complains about what it has become, but as users, we are responsible for it. We spread stories that often rely on fear and disgust.
What to do?
Where does that leave us as users of social media and content producers? It leaves us in a place of responsibility.
Quite simply, we have to avoid sharing fake news. We cannot just share something because it catches our attention or seems like it could be true.
Just recently, a pastor who lost his daughter in a church shooting was harassed by two individuals who run a conspiracy theory website. They yelled that the pastor’s murdered daughter never existed.
Our online activity has real-world consequences.
Secondly, we can hold each other accountable when we see friends and family share fake news.
Don’t let false news stay unchallenged online. Politely ask the person where they heard that story or how they came about the information.
Combating fake news is especially important for those of us who live as ambassadors for the One who said He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Aaron Earls is online editor of Facts & Trends. He is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared at numerous sites, including The Washington Post, World Magazine, and Think Christian.