One of this week’s milestones in the history of technology, the launch of Twitter, sheds light on the way we live now—deriving social status and enjoyment by playing games and gaining popularity on the Internet, including creating and spreading fake news.
A dozen years ago this week, the first tweet was posted. Nick Bilton in Hatching Twitter:
On March 21, 2006, at 11:50 A.M., Jack [Dorsey] twitted, “just setting up my twttr” … it all started to come together. Jack’s concept of people sharing their status updates; Ev [Williams]’s and Biz [Stone]’s suggestion to make updates flowed into a stream, similar to Blogger; Noah [Glass] adding timestamps, coming up with the name, and verbalizing how to humanize status by “connecting” people; and finally, friendships and the idea of sharing with groups that had percolated with Odeo and all the people who had worked there… [Later that evening] they were like a bunch of children at a sleepover wishing each other good night. Like a group of friends talking about what they had done that evening, they all sat separately, together, having a conversation. Tweeting.
In the years that follow, sharing status updates has transformed into a highly visible measurement of popularity, with the number of twitter followers reflecting one’s social status, influence, celebrity. For many Twitter users, it has become a source of entertainment, not as passive consumers of someone else’s creative output (as when they watched TV or read a newspaper), but as active players, creators, fully engaged producers.
As happened with traditional media, the long-time exclusive domain of reporters and broadcasters, Twitter users seized the opportunity to make a name for themselves not only by reporting their and their communities’ news, but also by creating news, fake or otherwise, and helping spread other people’s news, the more provocative the better. Gaining a few or many Twitter followers as a result, seeing their Tweet retweeted many times and being debated or commented on was the Internet version of being the most popular kid at a sleepover. Their tweet or retweet becoming “viral” was the equivalent of being the high-school’s coolest kid for a day.
In “The spread of true and false news online,” just published in Science, MIT’s Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral investigated “the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017” by examining about 126,000 stories tweeted by about 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. They found that “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news… Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”
The researchers thought that false news (they did not want to use the term “fake news” because it has become too politicized) spread faster than true stories because they were “novel,” noting that new information “conveys social status on one that is ‘in the know’ or has access to unique ‘inside’ information.” But they also noted that “the emotions expressed in reply to falsehoods may illuminate additional factors, beyond novelty, that inspire people to share false news.”
Additional factors? How about the sheer enjoyment derived from playing games? How about the satisfaction that is derived from playing games that increase your social status in a measurable way visible to a global audience of millions of Twitter users? How about the comfort derived from feeling less lonely or from making another person afraid or disgusted?
This little bit of enjoyment Twitter brings to some people’s lives is under threat (in the name of “democracy,” no less). The MIT researchers mention “misinformation-containment policies” but do not elaborate. But the authors of another Science article, “The Science of Fake News,” know exactly what’s to be done:
What interventions might be effective at stemming the flow and influence of fake news? We identify two categories of interventions: (i) those aimed at empowering individuals to evaluate the fake news they encounter, and (ii) structural changes aimed at preventing exposure of individuals to fake news in the first instance.
They suggest these measures to stem the flow and influence of fake news after writing, in the same article, that
Evaluations of the medium-to-long–run impact on political behavior of exposure to fake news (for example, whether and how to vote) are essentially nonexistent in the literature. The impact might be small—evidence suggests that efforts by political campaigns to persuade individuals may have limited effects.
The authors of this article no doubt believe—with 48% of the American public, according to a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey—that the news media is primarily responsible for ensuring people have an accurate and politically balanced understanding of the news by virtue of how they report the news and what stories they cover. Which means, if Twitter (and Facebook) are categorized as “news media,” measures to protect the public must be taken.
Another 48% of the public, according to the same survey, does not think it needs protection because it believes in individual responsibility. They think that the primary responsibility lies with individuals themselves by virtue of what news sources they use and how carefully they evaluate the news.
In his book, Nick Bilton traces the evolution of Twitter from asking the question “What are you doing?” to asking “What’s happening?” Twitter has become an important news source, its users often beating established media to breaking news. But Twitter users took it further by answering questions like “what’s your opinion about X?” and “what news can you make up?” It’s just that it wasn’t called “fake news” at the time. Bilton describes a 2009 meeting between Al Gore and two of Twitter’s founders in which Gore tried to convince them to pursue a merger of Twitter with his Current TV.
Bilton: “After the [presidential] debates had concluded, and Barack Obama had tweeted about winning the 2008 presidential election, Gore immediately saw how compelling the combination had been: people making fun of Sarah Palin in real time, debunking false statements by both candidates, rooting for their home team. “
But the right guy was elected president so there was no need for investigations, academic or otherwise. Twitter was golden, a new and exciting platform to distribute news, a new pillar in the important foundation of democracy provided by the news media.
This elevated status of what was launched as a personal news broadcasting medium was reinforced at the start of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011. Twitter was now perceived not only as a pillar of democracy in the United States but as one spreading democracy to the people clamoring for it in the Middle East, helping them topple tyrants. That turned out to be real “fake news.”
There is no reason to take measures to protect the public from fake news on Twitter (or Facebook) because there is no evidence of any causal relationships between mis-information or being nasty to Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton and the state of American democracy. As a matter of fact, there is strong evidence that there is no connection whatsoever.
After paying a visit to the United States, Charles Dickens described (in Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844) the newsboys greeting a ship in New York Harbor: “’Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! … Here’s the full particulars of the patriotic loco-foco movement yesterday, in which the whigs were so chawed up, and the last Alabama gauging case … and all the Political, Commercial and Fashionable News. Here they are!’ … ‘It is in such enlightened means,’ said a voice almost in Martin’s ear, ‘that the bubbling passions of my country find a vent.’”
Somehow, American democracy survived the partisan, sensational, filter bubble-oriented, fake news-filled news media of the 19th century. It will survive Twitter, Facebook, and “objective” news reporters and broadcasters. Unless, of course, a significant majority of Americans will come to believe that independent thinking is so 19th century and that the news media, not they, have the primary responsibility for ensuring they have “an accurate and politically balanced understanding of the news.”