By now, we’re all familiar with the idea that social media can – and has – been used to spread untruths. But why does this work? Soroush Vosoughi from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center talks with us in episode 20 about his research into how false news disseminates differently than true news on Twitter. His open-access article “The spread of true and false news online“, co-authored with Deb Roy and Sinan Aral, was published in the journal Science on March 9, 2018.

How Misinformation Spreads Online - Soroush Vosoughi
How Misinformation Spreads Online - Soroush Vosoughi
How Misinformation Spreads Online - Soroush Vosoughi How Misinformation Spreads Online - Soroush Vosoughi
@rwatkins says:
The fields of social media, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are moving rapidly, making a challenge of keeping up with their advances. So we asked Soroush what unifying idea he thinks we should pay more attention to.
@rwatkins says:
Often invisibly, computational algorithms mine and analyze our interactions with technology. While the conveniences afforded by such technologies as speech recognition and computer vision through traffic navigation and medical diagnosis provide many benefits, they can also expose us to privacy risks … and even threaten our civil liberties. Given the pace of their growth, we wanted to hear what implications Soroush predicts that such technologies will have in our future.
@rwatkins says:
Publicity and press coverage of Soroush's study has been ubiquitous since its publication in early March of 2018. As of the release of this episode of Parsing Science, it ranks in the top 5% of all research publications that are monitored by Altmetric, a company which tracks the online popularity of published research, which also lists it as the second highest scoring article published ever by the journal Science over its 138-year history. We asked Soroush about his experience of all the media attention the study has received.
@rwatkins says:
The widespread use of social media seems to have accelerated our capacity to isolate ourselves from others whose opinions and perspectives differ from our own. This amplification and reinforcement of media that aligns with our established beliefs and opinions has been dubbed the "echo chamber effect." We asked Soroush for his perspective into this phenomenon.
@rwatkins says:
Soroush's earlier work involved creating a tool for detecting false rumors on social media platforms, and this project extended that research by examining how false and true rumors are shared. Given his expertise, Doug and I wanted to learn where his interests might take him next.
@rwatkins says:
We asked Soroush for his thoughts on how the spread of false news and rumors might be best investigated, as well as what courses of action he hopes that social media platforms might adopt to mitigate them.
@rwatkins says:
Unlike Facebook, tweets posted to Twitter are almost always public. The analytics data that Soroush and his team gained access to, however, are not. Since we spoke to him just as details of Cambridge Analytica's misuse of private Facebook data were first emerging, Doug and I were especially interested in learning what led Twitter to share every tweet ever made with Soroush's team.
@rwatkins says:
Though it wasn’t the focus of their study, Ryan and I were interested in learning if people may have different motivations for sharing false news online, as well as what might help persuade them to reconsider doing so. Here, Soroush gives his thoughts on the question.
@rwatkins says:
To learn whether there might be any linguistic clues that could explain how false rumors propogate, Soroush and his team examined the emotional content of replies to true and false news tweets. Here, he explains how they explored the ways in which people respond to both types of news.
@rwatkins says:
Their findings showed that false news spreads farther, faster, further and more broadly online than does the truth. Furthermore, the algorithm Soroush trained could also predict whether other online rumors were true or false 75% of the time … even before those tweets were fact-checked. Ryan and I were curious to learn which characteristics that Soroush and his team looked at were most influential in the spread of false news online.
@rwatkins says:
With social media, especially on Twitter, information is shared from one or more users to multiple other users. When such information is reshared, a “cascade” is formed. Soroush and his team selected over 126,000 tweets involving contested news stories which linked to one of six professional fact-checking websites, and could therefore be verified as true or false claims. They then examined four characteristics inherent to cascades, as he describes next.
@rwatkins says:
Ryan and I began our conversation with Soroush by asking what led to his interest in studying the spread of false news and rumors online.
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How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Vosoughi, S..(2018, April 2). Parsing Science – How Misinformation Spreads Online. figshare.

Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Soroush Vosoughi: This disgust might be one reason – or this negative feelings people have towards false stories – might be one reason why they’re more likely sharing.

Doug Leigh: This is Parsing Science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Doug Leigh.

Ryan Watkins: and I’m Ryan Watkins. Speaking of a quickly-debunked Wikileaks hoax in 2012, the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote “It is true that the Internet can be used to disseminate falsehoods quickly, but it just as quickly roots them out and exposes them.” So is Greenwald’s stance true today as well? Today we’re joined by Soroush Vosoughi from MIT’s Media Lab, who spoke with us about his research into how true and false news spread online.

ad: WeShareScience

Hi, I’m Soroush Vosoughi. I’m a postdoc at the MIT Media Lab; also a fellow at Harvard Beckman Client Center. I’m a MIT lifer; I’ve been at MIT for many, many years. I came to Boston to study at MIT in 2004 as an undergrad, and I ended up getting my bachelor’s there and then my masters and then my PhD, and then I decided to stay a couple years for postdoc. And now actually I’m on the job market this year, so I’m going around giving job talks; hopefully finding a position for next fall.

Leigh: Ryan and I began our conversation with Soroush by asking what led to his interest in researching the spread of false news and rumors online.

Vosoughi: I was a second year PhD student in 2013 when the Boston Marathon bombings happened. At that point I was still exploring research ideas for my PhD thesis, but one kind of area that I was getting closer to making my PhD topic was on creating computational models of language learning. I’ve always been interested in linguistics and natural language processing from a computational point of view, so I’ve been interested in, for example, coming up the computational models of how children learn language.

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