Twitter as “Hand Grenade”

Research … finds humans, not bots, are primarily responsible for spread of misleading information.

I have long thought that cable news/talk was a key contributor to the decline in our nation’s democratic discourse.  Cable channels cater to narrow, targeted demographics and the logic of television programming for the benefit of advertisers takes over. Nielsen share trumps nuance and truth.

We now face a new generational sea change in the sources of media erosion of our democracy — the Internet. Cyber makes up for in speed and virility what it lacks in editorial judgment and attention to facts.

Twitter as Rumor Mill

Recent research from MIT’s Media Lab identified the growing proliferation of false claims on Twitter (see chart below).

False Twitter Posts - NYT - 2018-03-10

Human Sources

Importantly, the sources of the proliferation of false information are…. wait for it …. primarily humans, not bots.

The report had several other findings that are disturbing to those of us enamored of truth.

  • False news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are
  • It takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people
  • Regarding Twitter’s “cascades,” or unbroken retweet chains, falsehoods reach a cascade depth of 10 about 20 times faster than facts
  • Falsehoods are retweeted by unique users more broadly than true statements at every depth of cascade


You can read the Science article here.

You can watch a video on the genesis of this study here.


Is the Truth Too Hard to Hear?

Fact checking might even be counterproductive under certain circumstances.

The below excerpt from an MIT Media Lab paper on false news on Twitter, reviewed the research findings on the limits of false news debunking work.  It is dismaying.

Despite the apparent elegance of fact checking, the science supporting its efficacy is, at best, mixed. This may reflect broader tendencies in collective cognition, as well as structural changes in our society. Individuals tend not to question the credibility of information unless it violates their preconceptions or they are incentivized to do so. Otherwise, they may accept information uncritically. People also tend to align their beliefs with the values of their community.

Research also further demonstrates that people prefer information that confirms their preexisting attitudes (selective exposure), view information consistent with their preexisting beliefs as more persuasive than dissonant information (confirmation bias), and are inclined to accept information that pleases them (desirability bias). Prior partisan and ideological beliefs might prevent acceptance of fact checking of a given fake news story.

Fact checking might even be counterproductive under certain circumstances. Research on fluency—the ease of information recall—and familiarity bias in politics shows that people tend to remember information, or how they feel about it, while forgetting the context within which they encountered it. Moreover, they are more likely to accept familiar information as true (10). There is thus a risk that repeating false information, even in a fact-checking context, may increase an individual’s likelihood of accepting it as true. The evidence on the effectiveness of claim repetition in fact checking is mixed (11).

Although experimental and survey research have confirmed that the perception of truth increases when misinformation is repeated, this may not occur if the misinformation is paired with a valid retraction. Some research suggests that repetition of the misinformation before its correction may even be beneficial. Further research is needed to reconcile these contradictions and determine the conditions under which fact-checking interventions are most effective.

Another, longer-run, approach seeks to improve individual evaluation of the quality of information sources through education. There has been a proliferation of efforts to inject training of critical-information skills into primary and secondary schools (12). However, it is uncertain whether such efforts improve assessments of information credibility or if any such effects will persist over time. An emphasis on fake news might also have the unintended consequence of reducing the perceived credibility of real-news outlets.

Quoted from: The science of fake news. Science.  09-March-2018.  By David Lazer, Matthew Baum, et al.


Fake News – the last rhetorical refuge for scoundrels…

“Fake news” – a rhetorical “get out of jail free card” for liars and stupid politicians.

[Source: BBC News 12/22/17].

The new US ambassador to the Netherlands has been caught out on Dutch television after a journalist quizzed him about comments he had made about Islamic extremism in the country.

Pete Hoekstra denied he had ever said there were “no-go zones” in the Netherlands, calling it “fake news”.

But the Dutch journalist showed him a clip of the comments from 2015.

The Trump appointee then appeared to deny the “fake news” term he had used earlier in the interview.

The exchange left Wouter Zwart, US correspondent for Dutch broadcaster NOS, visibly confused in the short clip that has been widely shared on social media.


Zwart: Speaking of threat, at one point you mentioned in a debate that there are no-go zones in the Netherlands and that cars and politicians are being set on fire.

Mr Hoekstra: I didn’t say that. That is actually an incorrect statement. Yeah, we would call it fake news.

Zwart: Is that fake news? Because that’s what you really said.

Mr Hoekstra: No, it’s not what I said.

Mr Hoekstra (on archive video): The Islamic movement has now got to the point where they have put Europe into chaos. Chaos in the Netherlands, there are cars being burned, there are politicians that are being burned. And yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.

Zwart: You called it fake news, obviously… (is interrupted)

Mr Hoekstra: I didn’t call that fake news, I didn’t use the words today.

Zwart: No?

Mr Hoekstra: No. I don’t think I did.

George Orwell is spinning in his grave.