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Fake News and Disinformation Guide

Social Media and the Spread of Fake News

Black background with person looking at phone. Speech bubble that reads fake news and social media logos float around it

With advancements in technology and the growth in social media use, fake news has found ways to spread even faster online. In a study about Twitter, MIT researchers determined that "false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are."

While reasons and methods vary from platform to platform, here are a few common reasons as to why fake news spreads on social media.

Novelty of Fake News
One of the main theories is that social media users are attracted to novel or shocking information. Someone sharing an article may not look beyond the eye-catching headline and immediately will share or interact with it. The more this happens, the further the story gets carried along.

As well, people online often want to jump on news and be the first to share it among their circle. This type of behaviour is meant to demonstrate how aware the person is of what is happening in the world, but can backfire when they end up sharing an inaccurate news story.

Many fake news stories can register surprise or disgust from social media users, and these strong emotions can influence someone to interact with or share one of these articles. As with the point above, this user's wish to let people know about this shocking information brings the story to more people.

This is especially true with false political headlines and stories. A study from the University of Pittsburgh found that people were more likely to share a story with a negative headline about an opposing political party.

Bots and Trolls
These two entities on the internet are also known for aiding with the spread of misinformation.

Bots refers to an online software application that has been programmed by an individual to run a specific, automated task. This task can vary based on the intentions of the individual. On social media, people have used bots to create automated accounts that look like real people. These accounts then can help with spreading specific disinformation to push an individual's agenda by sharing fake news stories, engaging with other people's posts, or by spamming hashtags.

Trolls are people who purposefully want to insult and argue with users online. Part of this agenda is also supporting and advocating for fake news stories in an attempt to undermine facts. There are a variety of reasons why someone would become a troll; they could be doing so with the purpose of attacking a specific person or public figure, or to amuse themselves.

(Image Source: Copyright © R. Stevens / CREST (CC BY-NC-SA).)


Visualization chart from HoaxyHoaxy is a great site for exploring how news travels through social media! This tool aims to show the spread of article online through visualization graphs, mainly on Twitter. You enter the title of an article, and then a graph featuring individual dots shows how the article spread from one user to another.