Natural Born Liars
Why we spread lies, and how to stop.
Posted Dec 11, 2018
Dictionary.com recently named “misinformation” the “Word of the Year.” The rampant spread of fake news on social media and the role it played in political elections across the globe were cited as key reasons this word rose to the top.
But why are lies so successful online?
Herman Melville famously wrote in an 1850 essay that “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.”
Privileging what is original lies at the core of our knowledge-producing practices. A University of Oxford study (Clarke and Lunt 2014) shows, for instance, that originality is required for passing Ph.D. exams across disciplines and fields.
Grants, publications, jobs, and promotions are all reserved for research that breaks new ground rather than rehearses familiar territory. No one wants to fund or undertake projects that tell us what we already know.
This structure of incentives in knowledge production, however, has an unintended consequence: it promotes novelty over truth.
The “replication crisis” (Bird 2018) in the social sciences, for instance, is often attributed in part to a system that values discovery at the expense of confirmation. In a widely cited study (Aarts et al. 2015), only one-third of the original findings in three highly ranked psychology journals were successfully replicated. In an effort to say something new, then, researchers seem to be sacrificing the truth.
A similar incentivization structure exists in online consumption of information. Human brains gravitate toward the novel (Cell Press 2006), so posts and tweets on social media with original content are more likely to be noticed and read. The mundane and familiar are ignored while information that is new or surprising is met with approval through likes, shares, and retweets.
Just as in the social sciences, however, privileging what is novel over what is true is leading to an epistemic crisis.
A recent study (Jasny et al. 2018) examined the diffusion of true and false news online by looking at rumor cascades on Twitter, which are unbroken retweet chains with a single common origin. What was found is that falsehood spreads significantly farther, faster, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.
For instance, false news cascades reached between 1,000 and 100,000 people, while the true ones rarely extended beyond 1,000 people. It also took the truth about six times longer to reach 1,500 people than falsehoods did.
But why do social media users gravitate toward the dissemination of lies?
Importantly, those who spread false news online have significantly fewer followers, follow significantly fewer people, and are significantly less active on Twitter.
False rumor cascades are not, therefore, more powerful than the true ones because of who is sharing them. Instead, what is being shared seems to be the driving force.
Across all relevant dimensions, false rumors are significantly more novel than true ones. False news also inspires greater responses from users of surprise or disgust, while the truth elicits reactions of sadness, anticipation, joy, and trust.
For instance, a victim of the Thousand Oaks, California shooting was the subject of an online conspiracy theory that claimed she is a crisis actor who also appeared in Orlando and Las Vegas. Despite the fact that the three images purporting to all be of the same person did not resemble one another, thousands of social media users shared and liked versions of this falsehood on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
These differences between true and false rumor cascades are especially pronounced when it comes to politics. False political news, for instance, reached more than 20,000 people nearly three times faster than all other types of news reached 10,000 people.
This raises an urgent problem. At a time when lies, particularly in politics, are propagated in unique ways—and to unprecedented degrees—the human fascination with the novel is leading to an epistemic crisis.
President Donald Trump, for instance, uses Twitter in ways unseen by previous political leaders, and he reportedly averages about eight lies a day in his public life since taking office. A recent CNN story highlights the 36 most outrageous claims Trump made in a single interview.
Given the platform that the President of the United States has, combined with the often shocking nature of his tweets, we have the ingredients for a perfect storm against truth: Trump tweets a lie. Because of its original content, social media users are drawn to it. They pick it up and retweet it. News outlets that correct the record may be ignored or drowned out because of the ordinary and familiar nature of their statements. In the meantime, the next interesting falsehood has been tweeted, captivating the attention of the bulk of social media users.
The cycle repeats itself.
The irony of this is that the origin of the crisis facing online users is the very system put in place to produce research of the highest caliber. Incentivizing the discovery of what is new aims to promote the uncovering of new truths. But novelty and falsehood often go hand-in-hand.
What needs answering is how this cycle of epistemic destruction on social media can be interrupted.
Although the replication crisis has been the occasion for much handwringing, social scientists are actively working through it with reforms on the publishing process. The sort of critical work needed to confirm results and uncover errors can be incentivized—with recognition, with publications, with tenure—in the same way that novel research is.
Similar efforts can be made with social media. Users don’t need to plug their ears like Odysseus to avoid the siren call of the novel.
Instead, posts that confirm and support—rather than surprise—can be incentivized through shares and retweets. Suspending judgment can be rewarded with likes and comments, and fact-checking pieces can be targeted for amplification, both individually and collectively.
Social media platform companies can also work to alleviate the problem.
Earlier this year, for instance, Google launched Google News Initiative to thwart fake news. One strategy of the initiative is to encourage accurate journalism through highlighting true stories, especially during breaking news events. This is a concrete incentivizing tool, one that other platforms can use to follow suit.
Crucially, control (Lackey 2008) over channels of communication belongs not only to those who speak, but also to those who listen. By harnessing our own power as participants in social media, we can enforce standards that are sensitive to what is true rather than to what is new.
Aarts, Alexander A. et al. 2015. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science. Science 28: 943-51.
Bird, Alexander. 2018. “Understanding the Replication Crisis as a Base Rate Fallacy.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjps/axy05.1
Cell Press. “Pure Novelty Spurs The Brain.” ScienceDaily, 27 August 2006. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060826180547.htm.
Clarke, Gillian and Ingrid Lunt. 2014. “The Concept of ‘Originality’ in the Ph.D.: How Is it Interpreted by Examiners?” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 39: 803-820.
Jasny, Barbara R. et al. 2018. “Lies Spread Faster than the Truth.” Science 359: 1114-1115.
Lackey, Jennifer. 2008. Learning from Words: Testimony as a Source of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.