Student guest post: How can reputable sources compete when fighting fake news?

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Paige Colpo is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is double-majoring in reporting and Peace, War and Defense. She hopes to work for a foreign policy publication after graduation.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and Mozilla must do more to combat fake news as Europeans head toward a critical election season, the European Commission says.

The Internet giants signed a Code of Practice on Disinformation last fall agreeing to take measures against fake news. While there has been some progress in removing fake accounts and limiting the visibility of sites that promote disinformation, the commission said the companies must take additional action to ensure full transparency of political ads before Europeans head to the polls.

The European Parliament will hold elections in May. Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Poland, Portugal and Ukraine will follow in the coming months.

As technology companies continue to grapple with fake news, it is worthwhile to consider how it spreads and why users continue to share it over reputable news sources.

To answer this question, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study investigating how mechanisms in Twitter, coupled with idiosyncrasies in human behavior on social media, make it easy for fake news to spread.

The team looked at a sample of roughly 126,000 news articles tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017.

News categorized as fake or false was 70 percent more likely than true news to receive a retweet, with political fake news spreading three times faster than other kinds, the study said. The top 1 percent of retweeted fake news was regularly spread to at least 1,000 people and sometimes as many as 100,000. True news rarely reached more than 1,000 people.

Contrary to popular belief, the study found that humans –– not bots or algorithms –– accelerated the spread of fake news.

Unlike bots, humans are affected by emotion. By targeting emotions like fear, disgust and surprise, the researchers found that fake news was able to generate more user engagement than real news, which inspires anticipation, sadness, joy and trust.

A separate investigation found that the most important catalyst of fake news was the precision with which the source targeted an audience. Using data that tech companies routinely gather and sell to advertisers, purveyors of fake news can disseminate falsehoods to individuals already predisposed to believe them.

While it may seem that the cards are stacked against trustworthy news sources, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Through imitating the tactics used to disseminate fake news, reputable news outlets could replicate its success.

As the studies noted, one of the reasons fake news is so successful is the way that it elicits intense emotion. Fake news headlines are both attention-grabbing and poignant. When shared over social media, they are typically accompanied by some sort of provocative photo that implores users to click to learn more. While it is ill-advised for reputable news sources to resort to sensationalism, they could improve social media user engagement by using emotional headlines and eye-catching photos that encourage retweets and shares.

Increasing the number of hashtags attached to a post could also increase user engagement. Tweets with one or more hashtag are 55 percent more likely to be retweeted than those without hashtags. Fake news disseminators notoriously use numerous hashtags to ensure their messaging reaches as many users as possible. Reputable news sources could increase online engagement with their posts by following suit.

While the spread of fake news is unlikely to abate in the near future, reputable news sources should not feel discouraged. They must continue to publish honest, reliable coverage and give fake news a real run for its money.