Why do fake news stories and hoaxes go viral? This was the question asked by a team of US researchers - who discovered both high (real) and low (fake) quality information is shared at similar rates on social media platforms such as Facebook.
Now as more people are now using Facebook as a primary news source, researchers say that understanding how and why fake news spreads is crucial to stopping it.
Limited individual attention spans and the sheer information overload social media brings could explain why, the researchers say.
"Previous research has shown that a combination of social network structure and finite attention are sufficient for viral memes to emerge," lead researchers Diego Fregolente and Mendes de Oliveira said. "Although it might seem logical that information quality plays a role in determining which information goes viral, the spread of misinformation of fake news on social media sites suggests otherwise."
Fregolente, de Oliveira and their team showed that behavioural limitations reduce the ability of social media platforms to discriminate between low and high quality information.
In this study, the researchers made a "meme diffusion model" (seriously) to explore how information load (average number of memes received by an individual per unit of time) and individual attention interact with the quality of a meme to affect its popularity.
They found that it is theoretically possible to have a social media marketplace where a good trade-off between quality and diversity of information is achieved. However, when the model is calibrated with real-world measures of information load and attention derived from Twitter and Tumblr, they find that high and low quality information are shared at similar rates.
The researchers concluded that one way to increase the discriminative power of social media and to prevent the spread of misinformation is to curb the use of bots that flood social media with low quality information.
The full study can be found here.