Truth Does Not Equal Virality


Solution: Our latest cartoon of the week was inspired by the 2017 publication of Qiu and colleagues, published in Nature Human Behaviour. This study questions a major challenge within the mainstream media or digital world to date: how can low quality information become widely popular or why do fake news eventually surpass the actual truth? Qiu and colleagues investigate whether the quality of a piece of information (i.e. how valid a statement is) is making it more or less likely to prevail.

Through their model, the authors weigh the relationship between the quality of and idea and the likelihood for it to go viral. While we may all wish to think that ultimately the truth would conquer over all other information available, this is unfortunately not the case. Two main reasons are identified which may contribute to the failing of the system’s ability to discriminate truth from random ideas or potentially dangerous fake news:

(1) Information overload (there is too much we have to process)

(2) Limited individual attention (we can only attend a limited amount of infos at once)

Social media allow their users to share large amount of “ideas” on a daily basis. But humans can only maintain a certain amount of social interactions during a single day. One consequence of this is that groups of people end up surrounded by a small circle, their own “bubble”, of friends. Such friends tend to share similar beliefs and mindsets, which consequently leads to a skewed flow of information in each person’s social media channel accelerating the problem even more.

Do you know how scientific results are obtained? Why can’t we simply conquer the mass of fake news online by providing equally as much science news? Research is the search for knowledge through the systematic and careful study of a topic, an object, or any source of information in order to test a hypothesis and gain new insight. We believe that once validated, the observation is proven to be correct with a high enough likelihood that it can be agreed on as being true by all. At least until proven differently. But by this definition science news can never be created so fast or in such volume as random ideas. In “Limited individual attention and online virality of low-quality information” Qiu and colleagues suggest that one way to overcome this problem is to control the use of bots that flood social media with low quality information.

Take Home Message: The quality of a piece of information is only weakly linked to its popularity. Qiu and colleagues highlight in their article how information overload and limited attention can lead to a system where quality of a piece of information or of an idea is not determining whether certain information do become popular on social networks or not. Digital misinformation has been ranked a major global risk for our society and it is important to question the high volume of misinformation observed online.

Original Publication: Qiu, X., Oliveira, D. F., Shirazi, A. S., Flammini, A., & Menczer, F. (2017). Limited individual attention and online virality of low-quality information. Nature Human Behaviour1(7), 0132.

Fun Fact: By the way, this is how @bornascientist would describe the path for reaching a scientific fact – through systematic and careful study and rigorous peer review. And in comparison the creation of a random idea or potential fake news:



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