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The Briefing: Twitter = a lot of fake news, all the time

WASHINGTON – Perhaps you are reading The Briefing today because you found the link on Twitter, because you use Twitter as your main news source.

If that's how you get most of your news, please reconsider.

Proof that you may want to do so comes in the form of a groundbreaking study that shows what has seemed anecdotally true for years: that on Twitter, fake news beats real news all the time.

Fake news spreads faster and farther than the truth, MIT scientists found in a study of 126,000 stories tweeted between 2006 and 2017.

The most popular fake news quickly reaches upwards of 100,000 people, researchers found, whereas the truth rarely spread to more than 1,000.

Don't blame the bots. The researchers found that people share rumors, lies, urban legends, hoaxes and the like at the same rate that automated accounts do. People do so because fake news is so often sexier than the truth.

"We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information," the authors wrote.

In other words, the popularity of fake news is rooted in the very definition of news. We learn in journalism school that the unusual is newsier than the ordinary. Hence a fake story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign would be sure to beat a story about House Speaker Paul Ryan endorsing the plutocrat-turned-politician who became president.

Even some true stories that are surprising turn out to be less popular than surprising balderdash. For example, only about 1,300 people retweeted a mostly true story about Trump allowing a sick child on his plane to get urgent medical care. But about 38,000 used Twitter to share an untrue story from 2016 about a fictitious cousin of Trump's who supposedly said in his obituary: “As a proud bearer of the Trump name, I implore you all, please don’t let that walking mucus bag become president."

It seems that the shocking element of that second story – the "mucus bag" element – made it more popular than the truth.

You have no idea how disheartening all of this is to anyone who has devoted a career to the real news. You may not believe this, but we are real people, too, and when we make a mistake, we feel the pain that you feel when you make a mistake. I've seen grown journalists cry over factual errors. And when I taught a college-level journalism course, I had to stage an intervention for a student who was suicidal after I flunked her because of errors in her stories.

All this – and now it seems people prefer us to get it wrong!

This fact has huge societal implications. In a democracy, politicians are supposed to make decisions based on the facts, yet in the Twitter-led news ecosystem where the sensational beats the proven, we could get to the point where the sensational drives the agenda. Perhaps we already have.

That's why, in a letter accompanying the MIT study published in Science magazine, 16 political scientists say society needs to design a new way of disseminating the news.

“How can we create a news ecosystem ... that values and promotes truth?” they ask.

This should not be an academic question. It should be a question that every user of social media asks himself or herself.

Remember that the internet makes pretty much every one of us a publisher. We now have the freedom to seek the news that pleases us and rebroadcast it. It's a new freedom that previous generations of Americans never knew.

But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, "with freedom comes responsibility."

So it's our job to stop fake news. All we have to do is stop spreading it.

All we have to do is live by an old newsroom adage: If it sounds too good (or too weird) to be true, it probably is.

Happening today

Today The Briefing adopts to a new schedule, arriving on The Buffalo News website at 6 a.m. every weekday morning ... Excerpts from "Understanding the Opioid Epidemic," a documentary produced by WNED and featuring Avi Israel, the Buffalo activist fighting the opioid epidemic, will be screened at the Capitol Visitors Center at 6 p.m. in an event that includes a panel discussion...The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on school safety and the Feb. 14 murder of 17 people at a high school in Florida ... The Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing on President Trump's infrastructure plan ... The American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies both hold forums on Russia's future under President Vladimir Putin.

Good reads

The Washington Post reports that one person was really surprised that President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: Rex Tillerson ... Meantime, Politico says State Department staffers are thrilled at Tillerson's pending departure ... The New York Times notes that London is filled not just with Russian dissidents, but also with Russian spies ... Vox tells us that it's not the millennials who screwed up the country; it's the baby boomers ... And Boston magazine admits the obvious: Buffalo, not Boston, has the best St. Patrick's Day parade.

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