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Fake news is enabled by our teeny tiny attention spans, according to new research

Hey, look! A squirrel!

According to a recent study, our collective short-term attention span is contributing to the rise of fake news. Sharing that fake news on social media doesn’t help because it lends further credibility to the misinformed “news”.

While the concept of “fake news” has recently been popularised by a certain orange muppet, the public’s relationship with the media has been teetering on a seesaw for decades. Contemporary appeals which urge the public to trust media and journalism, such as theNew York Times‘ ‘The truth is hard’ ad campaign, seek to repair the distant relationship.

But the research frames the fractured notion of trusted media as much more serious than lost sales or publication shutdowns. The researchers believe that fake news is a threat to democracy – “Previous studies have shown that quality is not a necessary condition for online virality and that knowledge about peer choices can distort the relationship between quality and popularity. However, these results do not explain the viral spread of low-quality information, such as the digital misinformation that threatens our democracy.”

Everyone remembers the classic “Chk Chk Boom” stitch-up, where a communications professional posed as an eyewitness. Her recount became famous for many reasons, and it opened the realm of possibility for fake – or malleable – news. The video became famous around the same time that Youtube became a viable platform for user-generated content. Here, accounts like Lonelygirl15 took advantage of people’s unwillingness to investigate.

The research is the result of collaboration between a few researchers from several institutions. Published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour the study, titled ‘Limited individual attention and online virality of low-quality information’, used public post data from Twitter, mobile scrolling data from Tumblr (among other sources) to survey social trends online.

The researchers tracked 100,000 different posts across 20 different simulations and discovered “if the social network is constantly deluged by new posts and the users don’t have infinite attention spans (which, we don’t), the group loses its ability to discriminate between good and bad ideas.”

So, an influx of low-quality posts leads audiences to become complacent, as “both information overload and limited attention contribute to a degradation of the market’s discriminative power”. In order to combat this seemingly insatiable desire for information – regardless of quality – it seems that publishers and hosts like Facebook and Google will need to step up their game by weeding out fake news before it spreads. Game on, guys.

Kayla Velasquez

About the author

Larissa is Techly’s Assistant Editor. She watches so much Youtube that she’s narrowed down her favourite categories – goats, innocent dads getting pranked, and toddlers falling over.

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