Fake News Spreads Like an Illness, According to Math

Fagjun | Published 2017-07-30 15:17


Scientists have found that fake news spreads on social media because of information overload.


Receiving or reading fake news is like catching a disease, scientists say. Fake news can become quite popular, especially in circles that can get some form of validation from misinformation. However, it's not just misinformation that goes viral—anything can go viral, but it depends on a lot of factors.


We're likely to spread misinformation, even though we may pride ourselves in being discerning or critical. It can be difficult to separate what's true and what's false in the deluge of information we receive every time we log onto our social media accounts. Even high-quality content will find it hard to rise to the surface of information streams.


Researchers have found three reasons why networks can't distinguish between real news and fake news. These three reasons working together can bring up the worst kinds of information while keeping the best ones under the surface.


How Information and Misinformation Spread in Social Media


These three reasons are: (1) the sheer amount of information out there; (2) the limited time that people can choose what information to share; and (3) social network structures. Mathematical models that seek to explore how things go viral on social media call people “agents” and treat them as nodes in a network. Each node has a connection to other nodes, and they have connections to other nodes, and so forth. It's through these connections that information—and misinformation—can spread..


However, the spread of information isn't exactly like the spread of a virus. For example, we only deal with one strain of a virus at a time. Dealing with information on social media is like dealing with numerous virus strains at the same time. We also have the option of passing the “virus” along, or creating our own and passing that on. All this leads to information overload, which can lead to people sharing fake news.


The number of people in our networks also makes an impact. Some researchers say that people who have fewer people in their networks are less susceptible to misinformation. People who have a lot followers appearing in their feeds, meanwhile, are more likely to spread fake news.


Analyzing the Spread of Fake News


The people we have in our networks also matter. People tend to make friends with others who have similar beliefs and outlooks. So, for example, we see that a friend shared a news item that seems false or ridiculous. However, we see another friend share the same article. At that point, we tend to open and read what our friends shared since it may be interesting or true.


Of course, things aren't as cut and dry as we'd like them to be. There are still debates on how accurate these models of analysis are. The researchers admit that the model they used has limitations, specifically that of attempting to include and analyze more subtle cognitive behavior. However, the research still does offer interesting insights into how we ourselves spread information—and misinformation—among ourselves.

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