Liar's Tongue

Why Falsehoods Fly While the Truth Limps to Catch Up

More than three centuries ago, Jonathan Swift wrote that falsehoods fly while the truth limps far behind it. Today, we certainly see that in nutrition and obesity. Any number of myths stand firm despite clear evidence disproving them. More broadly, the news is full of reporting about Russia and ISIS using bots to spread misinformation through social media. But perhaps, says new research published in Science, the fault lies not with bots, but within ourselves.

Humans, More Than Bots, Spread Lies Faster Than Truth

Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral studied the diffusion of both true and false news stories on Twitter in 2016 and 2017. They examined 126,000 stories tweeted by three million people more than 4.5 million times. It turns out that Jonathan Swift was right. Lies flew faster and farther than the truth. People are hooked on novelty. The truth is boring. Lies are novel. It’s no contest.

But here’s the big surprise. Bots can’t keep up with the human preference for lies. Bots spread truth and lies at the same rate. Humans drove a 70% higher probability for spreading lies over truth.

Fear, Disgust, and Surprise

Vosoughi et al found that potent lies inspire fear, disgust, and surprise. Truth performed poorly on those dimensions. Sensational, false stories fit that template perfectly. We fear that sugar is poisoning us. News photos depict people with obesity as disgusting. Surprising new diets keep popping up. And sadly, we see scientists and health professionals sometimes spreading some of these false narratives.

We are up against a formidable foe in human nature.

Click here to read the study by Vosoughi et al and here to read more about the science of misinformation.

Liar’s Tongue, photograph © Michael Taggart / flickr

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March 10, 2018

2 Responses to “Why Falsehoods Fly While the Truth Limps to Catch Up”

  1. March 10, 2018 at 8:09 am, Michelle Vicari said:

    Thankful for sites like this sharing the science (or lack of) behind what has grabbed the latest headlines in obesity, health, nutrition, etc. We need more people using social media for good, sharing what we currently know (or don’t agree on), countering misinformation, challenging weight bias.

    “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” ~Winston Churchill

  2. March 10, 2018 at 9:00 am, Ted said:

    Thanks, Shelly!

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