During the past two years, fake news has been a frequent topic of real news, with articles considering the role of social media in spreading fake news, the advent of fake videos and the role these play in the political process.
Something less well-known, though, is that fake news has also become a topic of scientific investigation.
In a paper published in March in the journal Science, David Lazer, Matthew Baum and 14 co-authors consider what we do and don’t know about the science of fake news. They define fake news as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent,” and they go on to discuss problems at multiple levels: individual, institutional and societal. What do we know about individuals’ exposure to fake news and its influence upon them? How can Internet platforms help limit the dissemination of fake news? And most fundamentally: How can we succeed in creating and perpetuating a culture that values and promotes truth?
Fitting for this broad focus, the authors represent a variety of areas of expertise. Lazer and Baum, the paper’s lead authors, are affiliated with programs in network science, quantitative social science, global communications and public policy. Other contributors hail from law schools, departments of psychology, schools of journalism and industry research groups, to name just a few.
The paper makes a compelling case that the science of fake news is timely and important. One conservative estimate is that in the month before the 2016 election, the average American was exposed to somewhere between one and three articles from a known publisher of fake news. Another alarming result is that when it comes to political topics, tweets containing false information propagate more rapidly and broadly on Twitter than those containing reliable information.