Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Mark Twain famously said that "A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." Turns out Twain was more right than he ever could have imagined.

Researchers at MIT found that fake news travels faster than the truth on Twitter. In fact, six times faster.  It moves so quickly and is retweeted more often because “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” according to Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

While communication mediums have radically changed since Twain's time, human nature has not. The researchers believe that when individuals are the first to forward breaking news, they feel important, which tells others they're "in the know" and they want the rest of their social network to know that they knew it first.

The challenge of living in the digital age is to become more responsible news consumers and "news sharers" if we must.  Distinguishing trustworthy from dubious sources and sorting out fact from fiction is the first step.

What about this example of a fake news story that threw a small Georgia community into a tizzy? The city of Calhoun, Georgia supposedly posted an enormous dead copperhead on its Facebook page. The caption read "This morning one of our oficers (sic) killed this copperhead as it came out of the sewer in front of the courthouse. Please avoid the sewers as we think there is more snakes in them."

Poor grammar may be an indication of fake news. It's also a red flag when Facebook "news" becomes the leading news source over dedicated local news outlets like newspapers and radio stations. It's not that social media can't be a news source, but without editorial standards employed by traditional news outlets it's prone to inaccuracy and abuse.

This is important because more of us are getting our news from social media. According to a Pew survey last August, 67 percent of Americans get at least some of their news on social media. Seventy-eight percent of respondents under age 50 do so, which makes discerning social media news all the more important.

The medium can become addictive. How many of you have found yourselves on Facebook scrolling through news feeds and getting the latest updates from your "friends?" Susie's first piano recital, Johnny's eighth grade graduation, crazy cat videos, news items and various opinion. I've done it. I've also had the urge to kick myself after realizing that an hour or more has evaporated without realizing it.

And here's where the inclination to disseminate fake news begins. We eat at the Facebook buffet of the interesting and provocative and come out mentally and emotionally undernourished.  When our minds are full of the meaningless and inconsequential (the digital equivalent of empty carbs) there's less room for the important. As our discernment decreases, our level of trust is compromised, making it easier to share and act on things that aren't true.

If we wish to remain credible we should cultivate an appetite for the useful, important and true. It's not that we can't have diversions (some of those cat videos are hilarious) but we ought to be careful what we pass on as the truth. For the sake of our civic health each of us should filter out misinformation and lies from public discourse. 

For all the talk about the Russians hacking into our elections (many through Facebook posts meant to mislead voters) they would have been less effective if the average person sniffed them out and refused to forward and share with their network. A tough lesson that goes beyond elections is that we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to responsible social media use.

This column appeared in the March 30, 2018 edition of the Northern Kentucky Tribune.