A recent study by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral looked at news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 through 2017 , and found that false stories diffused “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information”, reaching people six times faster than true stories. This effect was especially pronounced for false political news stories, reaching people three times faster than false stories about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. The study found that false news likely moves faster because it tends to be more novel, and thus more valuable and likely to be shared. Perhaps most interestingly, the study also found that while bots did contribute to the spread of false news stories, they also shared true stories at approximately the same rate. False news spreads because humans, not bots, keep sharing it.

This information about bots is especially important when considering possible legislative responses to the problem of fake news, such as the recent proposal by French President Macron to impose fines on outlets that publish or distribute lies. If the problem was ultimately caused by bots sharing news stories, a legislative solution would be easier to craft – after all, robots do not have First Amendment rights. But humans do, complicating the process of finding a solution that eliminates or slows the spread of false news without violating the constitutional right to free speech. Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral suggest that misinformation containment policies should focus less on eliminating bots, and more on behavioral interventions like labeling and incentives to dissuade humans from sharing these stories.  Encouraging certain types of behavior instead of outright banning the spread of certain stories does seem like it would be the best way to avoid free speech concerns.

Hopefully with this new study’s information about how and why fake news spreads, lawmakers will be better able to tailor responses to the problem in a way that effectively reduces that spread without implicating First Amendment concerns.

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