Our Short Attention Spans Could Be Making It Easier for Fake News to Spread

A new study on your limited attention span and social media.

Courtesy of Unsplash via Luke Porter 

Does anyone even know what "news" means anymore? The president makes his daily cry against fake news — this Wednesday was no exception — and so many reports have said that ideological, less-than-fact-based media helped push him into the White House. Here's the thing: according to new findings in the journal Nature Human Behavior, the more posts you’re bombarded with, the harder it is to distinguish between fact and fiction.

The research team, led by Xiaoyan Qiu at Indiana University, found that both the load of posts you see on a feed and the limited attention you give your social media makes it hard for you to decipher the quality (or truth) of a post, making it easier for fake news to spread. This has real-world consequences. The study found that fake news has the same chance of going viral as a post that tells the truth, and your social media habits could be adding to the problem.

The study used a simulation of a social network, designed after a Twitter feed, to watch how posts are shared on a platform. New posts were introduced into the simulated network at an increasing volume to see how a computer, programed to act like a human, would react.

When the computer was shown a low number of posts on the feed, the chance that a quality post was successful—that is, reposted—was incredibly high. But as the volume of information increased, the chance of a quality post being shared went down. The more information on a feed, the less likely a quality post will be shared. The more posts the computer had to wade through, the more its ability to tell high and low quality posts apart went down.

A follow-up experiment compared two types of articles. The first group of articles supported false claims, proven so by fact checkers. The articles in group two had been fact checked and verified as true. The researchers then compared the number of times articles from the two groups were shared online by real people on actual Internet social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The team discovered an article from either group had the same chance of going viral. These findings support the claim that fake news can spread just as fast and go viral at the same ease as a quality posts.

Read the full study here

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