You may have seen news reports of a recently released M.I.T. study which found that false information (or lies) travels six times faster via social media than the truth, and reaches far more people.
Researchers studied more than 126,000 stories tweeted millions of times between 2006 and 2016. They found that false information sped through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”
To conduct the study, researchers developed a “truth machine.” Not like a lie detector we are used to seeing in old movies, rather an algorithm that could sort through the mass of tweets and extract the facts most likely to be accurate from them.
The study found that the average false information piece takes about 10 hours to reach 1,500 Twitter users, versus about 60 hours for the truth, and reaches 35 percent more people than true information. False info reached to as many as 24 generations of people, while truth maxed out at 12 generations. Of the more than 126,000 stories studied, nearly 2/3 were false, with just under 1/5 being true, and the rest being a mix of truth and lies.
As an example, the researchers looked at two emotional stories about President Trump that were tweeted – one negative and false, the other positive and true. The true story was shared or retweeted by 1,300 people. The false item was shared or retweeted by 38,000 people, with a retweet chain three times longer than the true story.
Why is this the case?
Researchers found that false information evokes stronger emotion than the truth. False tweets arouse elicited words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.
According to the study, social media seems to consistently magnify lies and falsehood at the expense of the truth. It’s as if a proverbial dam of false information has burst and no one knows how to repair it, of even if it can be repaired.
None of this should surprise us. “Fake news,” as it has been labeled, has become a white-hot topic, not only politically, but also culturally. Lies and truth have become nearly indistinguishable for much of our culture. Leaders lie. Liars lead. The emperor wears no clothes.
The devaluing of truth, tempts us to retreat into a postmodern perspective. I create my own personal, relative version of truth that works for me. I then tell you that you should create your own truth that works for you. If our definitions of truth are not compatible, no matter. This is the Emperor wearing no clothes come to life.
When truth becomes relative, then everyone becomes their own god… and that is a dangerous plan. Our own self-experience is evidence enough of that. Truth becomes like sand at the seashore under our feet in the tide. It erodes right from under us. Then we move our feet to another spot, only to have that one wash away as well. We need to find the more stable ground to place our feet.
There is an old proverb that tells us, “Embrace the truth and hold it close. Don’t let go of wisdom, instruction, and life-giving understanding.” The truth really is the solid pathway for our feet.
2,500 years ago, Aesop penned a fable I was read as a child, detailing a race between a tortoise and a hare. You may remember it. While the arrogant and ridiculing hare bolted out to a fast lead, it eventually tired and became distracted, allowing the slow-moving tortoise to pass it and win the race.
What a metaphor for truth in our day. Lies, like the hare, race out to take the lead, and has many more people cheering it on. While the truth moves much more steadily and methodically.
If Aesop were retelling the story in our culture, he would add some character throwing stones at the turtle. The truth is now assailed by a barrage of “isms” – moral relativism, hedonism, humanism, secularism, postmodernism, and more.
The true question is, which one will actually win this race today? Lies may be in the lead, but my money is on truth. Eventually, like the tortoise, it always wins out.
And that’s the truth.