The social media battle against fake news has begun – beware your own emotions

Did Donald Tusk, the former Prime Minister of Poland and now president of the European Council, conspire with Vladimir Putin to murder the President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski?

Many Poles believe this preposterous story, I learned last week at a fascinating conference on social influence at the University of Warsaw.

In 2010, a Polish Air Force plane carrying Kaczynski was blown up in Russia. An investigation by both Polish and Russian experts concluded that it was a pure accident. But on social media, where people are influenced by others, Tusk is widely thought to be complicit.

Coincidentally, the largest ever study on fake news was published last week in “Science”, probably the world’s leading scientific journal. Over 100,000 stories tweeted by some three million users were analysed over a 10-year period by a team led by Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist at MIT.

There are two key ways to measure the spread of a tweet. The first is, quite simply, the number of users who retweet it. The second is the length of the link the tweet passes through. Most tweets are never retweeted at all. But if your tweet is retweeted by a friend, and in turn someone retweets your friend’s retweet, its “length” is two.

The conclusion of Vosoughi’s research is rather depressing. Fake news and rumours spread much faster and reach more people than accurate stories, using both measures of the spread of a tweet.

The academics offer two explanations for their findings. Fake news seems to have more novelty for users than real news. And fake news tweets typically show a much higher level of emotion in their overall content.

The impact of emotion on influence is supported by the work of Serge Moscovici, a French social psychologist who was mentioned a lot at the social influence conference in Warsaw.

Moscovici, who died in 2014, is famous in psychology circles for his research on how minorities can exert influence on the opinions of the majority.

His best known experiment was based on what we now call false news. Participants sat down in a group and were shown a series of slides coloured different shades of blue. They were asked to say out loud the colour. When the game was played straight, everyone answered correctly.

But when Moscovici planted a few people to say very firmly and confidently that a slide was green, they were not only able to change opinions, the majority of the group sometimes ignored the rational evidence and believed the false statement.

The MIT false news study may help lay the foundations for algorithms which could flag up fake news. For example, stories with a high emotion level which also spread rapidly and deeply could be highlighted as being potentially false.

In its early days, email encountered the problem of identifying spam. The spammers and the “defenders” play a complex game with their different algorithms, but it is one which the spammers now usually lose.

So there is hope that, eventually, fake news can be overcome.

Paul Ormerod 

As published in City AM Wednesday 14th March 2018

Image: Social Media by Pxhere is licensed under CC by 0.0

Share this post



t: +44 020 8878 6333

Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.