Oft-quoted paper on spread of fake news turns out to be…fake news

By Adam Marcus

The authors of an much-ballyhooed 2017 paper about the spread of fake news on social media have retracted their article after finding that they’d botched their analysis.

The paper, “Limited individual attention and online virality of low-quality information,” presented an argument for why bogus facts seem to gain so much traction on sites such as Facebook. According to the researchers — — from Shanghai Institute of Technology, Indiana University and Yahoo — the key was in the sheer volume of bad information, which swamps the brain’s ability to discern the real from the merely plausible or even the downright ridiculous, competing with limited attention spans and time.

As they reported:

Our main finding is that survival of the fittest is far from a foregone conclusion where information is concerned.

Put another way:

quality and popularity of information are weakly correlated …

Not surprisingly, the article, which appeared in Nature Human Behaviour, received considerable media attention, including coverage in Smithsonian,  Ars Technica and many other outlets. And it has continued to serve as fodder for articles about the spread of lies in cyberspace.

But as the retraction notice, dated January 7, 2019, indicates, the study had major flaws. It turns out that fake news does not spread as wildfire-y as the real McCoy:

The authors wish to retract this Letter as follow-up work has highlighted that two errors were committed in the analyses used to produce Figs 4d and 5.

In Fig. 4d, a software bug led to an incorrect value of the discriminative power represented by the blue bar. The correct value is τ = 0.17, as opposed to the value τ = 0.15 reported in the Letter.

In Fig. 5, the model plot was produced with erroneous data. Produced with the correct data, the authors’ model does not account for the virality of both high- and low-quality information observed in the empirical Facebook data (inset). In the revised figure shown below (Fig. 5), the distribution of high-quality meme popularity predicted by the model is substantially broader than that of low-quality memes, which do not become popular. Thus, the original conclusion, that the model predicts that low-quality information is just as likely to go viral as high-quality information, is not supported. All other results in the Letter remain valid.

The retraction appears to be the first for the journal, which debuted two years ago this month.

Gordon Pennycock, a behavior researcher at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, who has studied the phenomenon of fake news, tells Retraction Watch:

If there is a lesson it’s that we should be mindful of double (and triple… and quadruple) checking our analyses. The pressure to publish is very strong, but no scientist wants to find themselves in this position. Having said that, I think the authors should be commended for retracting the paper.

So, while it may indeed be “true” that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on, we still don’t know why.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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