How Lies Spread Faster Than Truth: A Study of Viral Content

    by Craig Silverman
    February 18, 2015
    "Viral" by Jeremy Atkinson and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The following is an excerpt from Craig Silverman’s new report, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.” Click here to download the full report.

    News organizations are meant to play a critical role in the dissemination of quality, accurate information in society. This has become more challenging with the onslaught of hoaxes, misinformation, and other forms of inaccurate content that flow constantly over digital platforms.

    "Journalists today have an imperative — and an opportunity — to sift through the mass of content being created and shared in order to separate true from false, and to help the truth to spread."

    Journalists today have an imperative — and an opportunity — to sift through the mass of content being created and shared in order to separate true from false, and to help the truth to spread.


    Unfortunately, as this paper details, that isn’t the current reality of how news organizations cover unverified claims, online rumors, and viral content. Lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen.

    News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.

    The above conclusions are the result of several months spent gathering and analyzing quantitative and qualitative data about how news organizations cover unverified claims and work to debunk false online information. This included interviews with journalists and other practitioners, a review of relevant scientific literature, and the analysis of over 1,500 news articles about more than 100 online rumors that circulated in the online press between
    August and December of 2014.


    Many of the trends and findings detailed in the paper reflect poorly on how online media behave. Journalists have always sought out emerging (and often unverified) news. They have always followed-on the reports of other news organizations. But today the bar for what is worth giving attention seems to be much lower. There are also widely used practices in online news that are misleading and confusing to the public. These practices reflect short-term thinking that ultimately fails to deliver the full value of a piece of emerging news.

    What are these bad practices? Key findings:

    1. Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well. The story’s point of origin, once traced back through the chain of links, is often something posted on social media or a thinly sourced claim from a person or entity.
    2. Among other problems, this lack of verification makes journalists easy marks for hoaxsters and others who seek to gain credibility and traffic by getting the press to cite their claims and content.
    3. News organizations are inconsistent at best at following up on the rumors and claims they offer initial coverage. This is likely connected to the fact that they pass them on without adding reporting or value. With such little effort put into the initial rewrite of a rumor, there is little thought or incentive to follow up. The potential for traffic is also greatest when a claim or rumor is new. So journalists jump fast, and frequently, to capture traffic. Then they move on.
    4. News organizations reporting rumors and unverified claims often do so in ways that bias the reader toward thinking the claim is true. The data collected using the Emergent database revealed that many news organizations pair an article about a rumor or unverified claim with a headline that declares it to be true. This is a fundamentally dishonest practice.
    5. News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,” “claims,” etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences.These approaches lack consistency and journalists rarely use terms and disclosures that clearly convey which elements are unverified and why they are choosing to cover them.

    Much of the above is the result of a combination of economic, cultural, temporal, technological, and competitive factors. But none of these justify the spread of dubious tales sourced solely from social media, the propagation of hoaxes, or spotlighting questionable claims to achieve widespread circulation. This is the opposite of the role journalists are supposed to play in the information ecosystem. Yet it’s the norm for how many newsrooms deal with viral and user-generated content, and with online rumors.

    It’s a vicious-yet-familiar cycle: A claim makes its way to social media or elsewhere online. One or a few news sites choose to repeat it. Some employ headlines that declare the claim to be true to encourage sharing and clicks, while others use hedging language such as “reportedly.” Once given a stamp of credibility by the press, the claim is now primed for other news sites to follow-on and repeat it, pointing back to the earlier sites. Eventually its point of origin is obscured by a mass of interlinked news articles, few (if any) of which add reporting or context for the reader.

    Within minutes or hours a claim can morph from a lone tweet or badly sourced report to a story repeated by dozens of news websites, generating tens of thousands of shares. Once a certain critical mass is met, repetition has a powerful effect on belief. The rumor becomes true for readers simply by virtue of its ubiquity.

    This fake tweet (above) set off a ripple of misinformation (below).

    During Hurricane Sandy, this fake tweet (above) set off a ripple of misinformation (below).


    Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 2.33.05 PM

    Meanwhile, news organizations that maintain higher standards for the content they aggregate and publish remain silent and restrained. They don’t jump on viral content and emerging news—but, generally, nor do they make a concerted effort to debunk or correct falsehoods or questionable claims. This leads to perhaps my most important conclusion and recommendation: News organizations should move to occupy the middle ground between mindless propagation and wordless restraint.

    Unfortunately, at the moment, there are few journalists dedicated to checking, adding value to, and, when necessary, debunking viral content and emerging news. Those engaged in this work face the task of trying to counter the dubious content churned out by their colleagues and competi tors alike. Debunking programs are scattershot and not currently rooted in effective practices that researchers or others have identified. The result is that today online news media are more part of the problem of online misinformation than they are the solution. That’s depressing and shameful. But it also opens the door to new approaches, some of which are taking hold in small ways across newsrooms.

    A first, essential step toward progress is to stop the bad practices that lead to misinforming and misleading the public. I offer several practical recommendations to that effect, drawing upon research conducted for this report, as well as decades of experiments carried out in psychology, sociology, and other fields.

    Another point of progress for journalists includes prioritizing verification and some kind of value-add to rumors and claims before engaging in propagation. This, in many cases, requires an investment of minutes rather than hours, and it helps push a story forward. The practice will lead to debunking false claims before they take hold in the collective consciousness. It will lead to fewer misinformed readers. It will surface new and important information faster. Most importantly, it will be journalism.

    My hope is that news organizations will begin to see how they are polluting the information stream and that there is an imperative and opportunity to stop doing so. Organizations that already have good practices might also recognize that they can—and must—engage more with emerging news and rumors to help create real understanding and spread truth.

    There is simply no excuse. We can and must do better.

    Craig Silverman is the founder of Emergent.info, a real-time rumor tracker, and a leading expert on media errors, accuracy and verification. He is a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the author of the new Tow report, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.” Craig is the founder and editor of Regret the Error, a blog about media accuracy and the discipline of verification. It is part of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, where he serves as adjunct faculty. Craig edited the Verification Handbook from the European Journalism Center, and helped launch OpenFile, a Canadian local news startup. He is a the former managing editor of PBS MediaShift and has been a columnist for The Globe And Mail, Toronto Star, and Columbia Journalism Review. His journalism and books have been honored by the Mirror Awards, National Press Club, National Magazine Awards (Canada), Canadian Online Publishing Awards, and Crime Writers of Canada.

    Tagged: accuracy ethics news hoaxes twitter viral content viral stoires and accuracy viral stories

    10 responses to “How Lies Spread Faster Than Truth: A Study of Viral Content”

    1. Great post!

      I recently wrote an article on fact checking after I tried to research the original poster of a particular statistic, only to find out that they THINK it’s origin was from a passing comment in 2007… Seriously?? And I was about to mindlessly share the fact with my audience? Who could then go on to make poor decisions because of it!? Lesson learned.

      Anyways – loved this! Thanks!

      • KMC528 says:

        Exactly. Friends cite as fact things that I can only find on conservative blogs. Each of which cites back to “Blogger A says”, but no one ever cites proof of Blogger A’s source of information. Then they wonder why I put no credence in their “facts”. Just because someone says it, doesn’t make it true.
        Then I post a fact-checked article contradicting their un-fact-checked bloggers and they refuse to accept my source because it’s not what they want to believe.
        E.g., the actual transcript of Sandra Fluke’s speech was argued to be inaccurate, while Limbaugh’s bloviating about her needing birth control to be a slut (rather than her actual statement that her friend needed it to control a medical condition) was absolutely positively what they knew she really said.

        • Mom26 says:

          This is true on the left too. Nobody wants to research anything, just throw sh*t and see what sticks.

    2. Khae says:

      “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
      ― Mark Twain

    3. TKay Michel says:

      Why should journalists debunk fake stories when all they care about is how many clicks/tweets/views/likes they get? Sensational headlines generate attention, which translate to revenue for them. Freedom of the press has come to mean absolute freedom to print any lie they wish with zero accountability. I don’t think this is what our Founding Fathers had in mind.

    4. MongCon says:

      “Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,
      As he landed his crew with care;
      Supporting each man on the top of the tide
      By a finger entwined in his hair.
      “Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
      That alone should encourage the crew.
      Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
      What i tell you three times is true.”

      “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll

    5. Stephen Sponsler says:

      ‘let God be True and every man a liar” – 1000 BC

    6. Mom26 says:

      Ferguson, Case Study 101. The media ran with the narrative that Michael Brown was shot in the back, when the U.S. Department of Justice finally broke through the malaise and found that there was no evidence and that the police officer’s story of events was true. This is a prime example of lies run amok and the destruction that they can cause to our communities and have long lasting consequences. We now call this the “Ferguson effect” – cops no longer want to arrest anyone anymore because of the negative press since Ferguson and now you are seeing massive spikes in crime nationwide.

    7. tpcowberry says:

      This article really ought to be re-presented. I can’t imagine anything more relevant, as the presidential election approaches.

      People need to be put on their guard. I’m guessing a load of cunningly crafted lies are waiting to be rolled out in rapid succession,calculated to create a cumulative effect that peaks shortly before the election without allowing time for the stories to be discredited. Everything up till now has been bombing practice and laying the groundwork.

    8. Michelle says:

      Ok, so then tell me WHICH sites actually have REAL journalists???

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