Mark Twain is said to have remarked that a lie can travel around the world and back while the truth is still lacing up its boots. In these modern times, of course, a lie can spread just about as fast as a human finger can click “retweet.” And scientists, who can record all of those finger-twitches in real-time, can finally test Twain’s proposition: Do lies really spread faster than truth?
Definitely yes, according to a new paper from Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy of MIT’s Media Lab, and Sinan Aral, a professor at the institute’s Sloan School of Management. In fact, these researchers found, “It took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.” You might comfort yourself that lies and the truth must be the proverbial hare and tortoise, with the lies racing out of the starting gate, and the truth eventually catching up, perhaps? Sadly no, at least not on social media: “Falsehood also reached far more people than the truth.”
Why are lies so much more powerful than the truth? The authors suggest “novelty” may be one answer: Fake news stories offer more of it than does real news. And yet, that seems incomplete. There would, after all, be a certain novelty in learning that former president Barack Obama was aces at mumblety-peg. But that sort of rumor seems unlikely to spread as far or as fast as the suggestion that he was a secret Muslim born in Kenya.
To see what makes a good fake-news story, it might help to look at recent false stories that were not connected to the presidential election — fake news before there was Fake News, if you like. Take for instance the the Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity which, as it turned out, was made up by an obviously troubled young woman.
Stories such as this offer a compelling narrative (vulnerable young woman meets nice young man, who uses a date to lure her into a fraternity initiation ritual where she is brutally gang-raped). They’re unambiguous (the Rolling Stone story involved a victim who wasn’t drinking heavily and an encounter that clearly started out as non-consensual — no hazy questions of impaired memory or ability for the men involved to claim they believed she wanted sex). And they confirm our preexisting beliefs (for example, in the University of Virginia case, that fraternities are epicenters of “campus rape culture.”
Other false stories have roughly followed this pattern. “Hands up, don’t shoot” turned Darren Wilson from a Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown at a moment when he may genuinely have feared for his life into a cold-blooded killer who gunned down the unarmed teenager just because he could.
Or take the nonsense about Obama’s birth certificate and his identity as a secret Muslim (two conspiracy theories that are often linked). If you already believe that liberals are secretly un-American, then what could be a more satisfying than a “Manchurian Candidate” who managed to infiltrate the presidency and use the office to carry out a hidden agenda?
How could the media compete with that? Reality is so boring, so messy ; there is rarely a single, cinematically evil villain, or evidence that unambiguously points in one direction. Journalists who get taken by liars — as did the author of the Rolling Stone article — often seem a little too eager for that perfect story. And the exceedingly rare writers who tell the lies themselves seem to disproportionately end up on bestseller lists, or in the running for prestigious prizes, precisely because they can deliver the cinematic narratives the rest of us long to, but cannot.
The difference between social media and “the media” is that the gatekeeper model, for all its problems, does care more about the truth than “the narrative.” Complain all you want about the liberal bias that contributed to stories such as the University of Virginia rape hoax, or the infamous National Guard memos about President George W. Bush that derailed Dan Rather’s career — heck, I’ll even agree with you. But remember, too, that the truth about those stories was hunted down, and corrected, by the same mainstream media that got them wrong in the first place.
In fact, social media can serve the same purpose. The highest-trafficked story I ever wrote was a correction of a fake quote attributed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had gone viral after Osama bin Laden was killed. I noted that the quote didn’t sound like King, didn’t seem to fit neatly with anything that had happened in King’s lifetime, and couldn’t be found in any of his writings. My quickie blog post went viral because, every time someone posted the fake quote to Facebook or Twitter, someone else hastened to let them know it was a fake.
But that seems like a different time now — a time when, whatever both sides agreed upon, they agreed that facts were important, and so was reporting them. These days, I’m not sure either side does.
President Trump, after all, doesn’t argue that the media is sometimes credulous or sloppy in their reporting; he suggests they’re deliberately mendacious. On the left, meanwhile, I’ve noticed a new phenomenon in the past year or so: I am frequently berated by people who don’t try to argue either the facts or my conclusion, but indignantly demand to know how I would dare to say a true thing that might hurt some left-wing cause. In 2011, I would never have imagined having to defend the act of telling the truth.
So perhaps the real reason fake news spreads so far and so fast is not that we don’t know better; it is that we know exactly what we’re doing and, more and more, we feel free to do it. If you care more about winning a political argument than making true claims . . . well, the truth will do in a pinch, but a purpose-built lie is likely to work better. In that world, lies will get first-class tickets on the fastest transport available, while the truth will find itself slowed to a crawl — and becoming persona non grata whenever it strays into unfriendly territory.