istock-violka08-948404476.jpg
(Credit: Violka08/iStockphoto)

A study conducted by a research group of professors and students at Indiana University found that fake news is real, but not in the way that you might think.

The researchers discovered that bots on Twitter (iOS, Android) during the 2016 US presidential election played an oversized role in spreading disinformation and helping information from low-credibility sources go viral.

The team studied 14 million messages and 400,000 articles shared on Twitter over 10 months, from the end of the 2016 presidential primaries to Inauguration Day in January 2017. The researchers found that in that span of time just six percent of the bots were able to disseminate more than 30 percent of "low credibility" information and articles tweeted and retweeted on Twitter.

SEE: Twitter now lets you help ferret out fake accounts

Not only were the bots tweeting but also promoting. The researchers found that a bot can get a story to go viral in a matter of seconds by targeting influencers.

"This study finds that bots significantly contribute to the spread of misinformation online -- as well as shows how quickly these messages can spread," Filippo Menczer, an IU professor who led the study said in a press release.

According to the study, a bot's ability to amplify a message's volume and visibility meant people were more likely to trust it and share it again.

"People tend to put greater trust in messages that appear to originate from many people," study co-author Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia said. "Bots prey upon this trust by making messages seem so popular that real people are tricked into spreading [the] messages."

The researchers also explored if curbing a small number of social bots could significantly lower the spread of bot-driven misinformation. In a simulated experiment, researchers deleted 10 Twitter accounts if they seemed to be bots. The number of false stories dropped significantly.

"This experiment suggests that the elimination of bots from social networks would significantly reduce the amount of misinformation on these networks," Menczer said.

Twitter has been working hard on shutting down the bots since 2016. In July, the company announced that it's imposing restrictions on third parties that want to access the site. They must now apply for an actual developer account, which requires more information disclosure to ensure compliance with Twitter's policies.

The company also offers users a way to report potentially fake accounts. When a report comes in, Twitter will investigate further. As of July, Twitter was suspending almost one million accounts per day.

The social media site could also improve their abuse-detection algorithms or employ CAPTCHAs. The study said using CAPTCHAs could create "friction" between automatic applications and legitimate entries by news media or emergency coordinators.

Stopping the spread of fake news also falls to human beings. Users have to double check nearly every headline these days. Here are some tips for being good news consumers from the International Federation of Library Associations:

  1. Consider the source: Investigate beyond the article as to how credible the publisher's site is.
  2. Read past the headline: Sometimes headlines are meant to get clicks; the actual article might convey a different message.
  3. Check the author: Is the person qualified to make these statements?
  4. Investigate supporting sources: What articles were linked in the article to support the argument?
  5. Check the date: Old stories, even from a few months ago, might not be relevant to current events.
  6. Make sure it's not satire: Many times sites like The Onion can be mistaken for the truth.
  7. Compare against your biases: Make sure your own beliefs aren't affecting your objectivity.
  8. Fact check: Sites like Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, and apps in the same vein can help debunk fake news.

FOLLOW Download.com on Twitter for all the latest app news.

Takeaways

  1. Despite only accounting for six percent of accounts, Twitter bot accounts disseminated more than 30 percent of incorrect information during the 2016 US presidential election, according to a new study from Indiana University.
  2. Twitter has been working to stop the problem by imposing greater restrictions, suspending accounts, and giving users ways to report potentially fake accounts.

Also see

Shelby is an Associate Writer for CNET's Download.com. She served as Editor in Chief for the Louisville Cardinal newspaper at the University of Louisville. She interned as Creative Non-Fiction Editor for Miracle Monocle literary magazine. Her work appears in Glass Mountain Magazine, Bookends Review, Soundings East, and on Louisville.com. Her cat, Puck, is the best cat ever.