Why We Keep Falling for Fake News

Once upon a time, we believed there were two kinds of news: good news and bad news. Then the 2016 election rolled round, and we got a new category: "fake news." More and more of our social media feeds were taken up by spam accounts pushing misleading information or outright lies that many nevertheless believed were true. But why did—does—this automated campaign of deceit work on so many of us? A new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour says the bots are only partly to blame.

While "fake news" may be a buzzword, it's certainly no joke. The information we take in can change the way we think, behave, and vote. So scientists are working as fast as they can to understand, and ideally defuse, the phenomenon before it gains any more traction.

Some studies have found that viral ideas arise at the intersection of busy social networks and limited attention spans. In a perfect world, only factually accurate, carefully reported and fact-checked stories would go viral. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Misinformation and hoaxes spread across the internet, and especially social media, like a forest fire in dry season.

To find out why, researchers created a virtual model of information-sharing networks. Into this network, they dropped two kinds of stories: high-quality (true) and low-quality (fake or hoax). Then they populated the networks with actual users and news outlets and spam bots. To keep the virtual news feeds close to real life, the spam bots were both more numerous and more prolific than the genuine posters.

The results confirmed what any Facebook user already knows: Whether or not a story goes viral has very little to do with whether it's actually true. "Better [stories] do not have a significantly higher likelihood of becoming popular compared with low-quality information," the authors write. "The observation that hoaxes and fake news spread as virally as reliable information in online social media … is not too surprising in light of these findings."

Within the model, a successful viral story required two elements: a network already flooded with information, and users' limited attention spans. The more bot posts in a network, the more users were overwhelmed, and the more likely it was that fake news would spread.

Even conscientious media consumers can be taken in by false information if they're in a rush, the authors write. "The amount of attention one devotes to assessing information, ideas and opinions encountered in online social media depends not only on the individual but also on [their] circumstances at the time of assessment; the same user may be hurried one time and careful another."

So what's the solution? "One way to increase the discriminative power of online social media would be to reduce information load by limiting the number of posts in the system," they say. "Currently, bot accounts controlled by software make up a significant portion of online profiles, and many of them flood social media with high volumes of low-quality information to manipulate public discourse. By aggressively curbing this kind of abuse, social media platforms could improve the overall quality of information to which we are exposed."

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

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Map Shows How Everyone Blamed Syphilis on Everyone Else

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn. De Lairesse, a painter and art theorist, had congenital syphilis that deformed his face and eventually blinded him.
Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn. De Lairesse, a painter and art theorist, had congenital syphilis that deformed his face and eventually blinded him.
Gerard de Lairesse, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The origins of syphilis may be one of the greatest (and grossest) health mysteries of our time. Some historians claim that Christopher Columbus and his sailors contracted the sexually transmitted disease in the New World and brought it back to Europe. Other experts believe that the disease, which is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, existed in various forms around the globe but was simply misclassified as other conditions. (European writers, including Italian historian Niccolo Squillaci, first described syphilis in the late 15th century.) And in 2015, researchers announced that they had identified signs of congenital syphilis in 14th-century skeletons from St. Polten, Austria, adding new evidence to an ages-old debate.

One thing's for sure: As the map below illustrates, nobody wanted to take credit for originating the virulent condition. Created by Redditor masiakasaurus (and spotted by The A.V. Club), the map illustrates the various nicknames Europeans gave the disease before the name syphilis caught on. (Italian physician and poet Hieronymus Fracastorius coined the word in 1530 with his poem "Syphilis Sive Morbus Gallicus" ("Syphilis or the French Disease"). Not surprisingly, nearly every single moniker used for the disease places blame on another group for giving birth to what by then had become a continental scourge.

“Most physicians felt that this was a new disease, that it hadn’t been seen before in Europe, and that view tended to prevail for quite some time,” medical historian John Parascandola told The Atlantic in 2016. “There were certain tempting reasons for people to accept that—blame it on the others, blame it on the outsiders. Before that, the French were blaming it on the Italians, the Italians were blaming it on the French, et cetera.”

Masiakasaurus sourced the syphilis nicknames from nine scholarly books/journals, including The Early History of Syphilis: A Reappraisal,The rise and fall of sexually transmitted diseases in Sweden, and A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate: From the Earliest Times Until the Year A.D. 1932. You can view the full list on Reddit—after giving silent thanks to Alexander Fleming for discovering penicillin, found to be an effective cure for syphilis in 1943.

[h/t The A.V. Club]