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Falsehood Flies

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it, wrote Jonathan Swift.


Swift’s surmise was confirmed in an ambitious study of social media published two years ago in the journal Science. The scope was massive. MIT researchers analyzed every major contested news story—some 126,000 in all—tweeted by 3 million users over a span of more than a decade. Their conclusion? By every metric, falsehood comes out on top. Fake news and false rumors reach more people and penetrate deeper and faster into the social network than does the truth.


“False information outperforms true information,” said lead researcher Soroush Vosoughi, a data scientist. “And that is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.”


I’d agree.


“We must redesign our information system in the 21st century,” wrote 16 political scientists and legal scholars in an accompanying essay, urging more research “to reduce the spread of fake news and to address the underlying pathologies it has revealed.” They called for a novel “news ecosystem…that values the truth.” It’s still a pipe dream.

A false study is more likely to go viral than a true story, the researchers found, reaching 1500 people six times faster. False news outperforms the truth in every category—business, science and technology, entertainment—but political fake news flies the fastest.


On average, compared to true stories, tweeters prefer to share lies. Even when the scientists controlled for differences between accounts that spread rumors, including the number of followers or if the account’s owner was verified, lies were 70 percent more likely than verities to be disseminated.


The two lead scientists endured a two-day lockdown after the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings during which wild conspiracy theories held sway on social media. When they reunited on campus, they decided to research what they’d just been through.

On social media, why do lies succeed? The MIT team settled on two hypotheses: novelty and emotion. False tweets are often notably different from tweets appearing in a user’s account over the prior two months, and lies more frequently elicit surprise or disgust.

“False information online is often really novel and frequently negative,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth. “We’re attentive to novel threats and especially attentive to negative threats.”


“The key takeaway is really that content that arouses strong emotions spreads faster, more deeply”—more re-tweets by different users—“and more broadly on Twitter,” wrote Rebekah Tromble, a political scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.


A lie repeated often enough becomes accepted truth. The quote has been attributed to Lenin and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.


On April 30, POTUS was asked if he’d seen evidence that COVID had emerged from a Wuhan lab. “Yes, I have,” he said, nodding gravely. “Yes, I have.” POTUS pivoted to the WHO, seamlessly weaving the agency into his latest conspiracy theory. “I think the World Health Organization should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public relations agency for China,” he said, a quick 180 from earlier statements praising the country for their pandemic response. “They shouldn’t be making excuses when people make horrible mistakes, especially mistakes that are causing hundreds of thousands of people around the world to die.” Three days later, Minister of Disinformation Mike Pompeo went on ABC to announce that there was “enormous evidence” that COVID had originated in a Wuhan lab.


Both men refused to provide any evidence, because evidence doesn’t exist. The theory has been widely debunked by scientists, who note that nature is far more adept at creating SARS and COVID and bird flu and countless other (thankfully) benign viruses than any researchers, however malevolent their intent, could hope to be.


Not only is truth irrelevant but also facts can blunt propaganda’s effectiveness, as POTUS and Minister Pompeo understand. “Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency,” said POTUS, to great effect. “Lock her up!”


Last night, I watched a bootleg copy of Plandemic, 30 minutes of slick propaganda worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, which, in a matter of days, had been watched by millions of viewers before being removed by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo for “violating community guidelines” and in order to “halt the spread of misinformation.”


The film focuses on Judy Mikovits, a discredited former researcher. Narrator and filmmaker Mikki Willis opens by saying, “Now, as the fate of nations hangs in the balance, Dr. Mikovits is naming names of those behind the plague of corruption’’—including Anthony Fauci, against whom she has a special animus and who she links without evidence to the Wuhan lab—“that places all human life in danger.”


“If we don’t stop this now, we can not only forget our republic and our freedom, we can forget humanity; because we’ll be killed by this agenda,” Mikovits says.


Among the clip’s many untruths is a humdinger: wearing a mask weakens your immune system, increasing your susceptibility to COVID. For your health, don’t mask up! The “documentary” recycles conservative tropes: evil experts connected to a deep-state-like mechanism of surveillance and control, grievance, and a sense of persecution. The clip even extols the benefits of hydroxychloroquine. Mikovits’ book based on the same malarkey is a top seller on Amazon.


I’ve often wondered about the affinity of self-described Christians (four of five evangelicals supported POTUS in 2016, a figure that is little changed) for a man whose personal behavior and political agenda is antithetical to the message of the Gospels. But on further reflection, the love affair is easily explained. POTUS’s “Christian” base believes in him with the same religious devotion with which they believe in Christ’s resurrection. Surprising—shocking, really—to rise from the dead. Memorably so. Besides, when you believe in someone, truly love him or her, no amount of evidence will change your mind.


Believers believe; skeptics are skeptical.


When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies, Shakespeare wrote.


I saw a patient yesterday, a retired elementary school teacher, a woman in her 80s. She hadn’t been a reliable Republican, not until 2016, when something she can’t describe about POTUS captured her fancy and made her vote for him; she’d said this two years ago when I’d asked her opinion about the president. She didn’t inquire about mine. POTUS supporters, in my experience, never do. When you believe in someone…


Her husband died nine years ago.


“I don’t care if I get the virus,” she told me yesterday.


“Why would you say that?” I asked non-confrontationally.


“If I get it and die, I’ll see my husband.”


Fourteen years ago, a study explored the possible benefit of intercessory prayer for patients having heart bypass surgery. In 2020, it seems quaint that such a proposition would be put to scientific test, a vestige of a bygone era, like laws against interracial (or gay) marriage, which now seem ridiculous.


The study, funded by the late billionaire investor and evangelical Christian John Templeton, was prospective and double-blind, the gold standard for a clinical trial. Patients were told they might or might not receive prayer. Group 1 was prayed for—per personal routine but including “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.”


Group 2 went without. No difference in complications or mortality was observed.

It’s doubtful that Sir John saw the irony of his position, hoping for a positive result, which would have demonstrated the efficacy of distant prayer. Such an outcome would have proven, one might surmise, the existence of God. Though if God were real, he or she might frown on the endeavor, consider it hubris. Prove I exist? How dare you! That’s my bailiwick!


But what if the trial results had been reversed? If researchers had “proven” the existence of God?


Perhaps there’d be fewer true believers.

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