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From Facts to Fake News: How Information Is Skewed


Do you remember that old childhood phone game? One child whispers a sentence in another child’s ear and it is passed on until the last child in the chain repeats it out loud. Inevitably, the words change along the way, depending on the listener’s cognitive interpretation.

Story retelling may be harmless fun in the playground, but new research from Wharton is sounding the alarm in the adult version by revealing how messages can become more biased when repeated from person to person. As information drifts further from its original source, retellers tend to pick facts, offer their own interpretations, and turn to the negative, according to the study, The Dynamics of Distortion: How Successive Summarization alters the Retelling of News.

“This paper came about because I was initially interested in understanding how we end up with fake news. But I quickly realized that this project is about something much broader, and I think it’s more interesting how original messages get distorted when people tell it one by one, ”Wharton Marketing Professor Shiri Melumad said in one Interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Social media intensifies distortions

Melumad co-authored the study with Wharton Marketing Professor Robert Meyer and Wharton PhD student Yoon Duk Kim. The scientists analyzed data from 11,000 participants from 10 experiments and came to the conclusion that when messages are passed on, they go through a stylistic transformation known as “uncomfortable personalization”. Facts are replaced by opinions as the narrator tries to convince the listener of a certain point of view, especially if the narrator thinks he is more knowledgeable on the subject than his audience.

The impact is amplified on social media. Followers don’t always click on shared content to read the original work for themselves, yet they often accept the conclusion or opinion of the person who posted it. Melumad said the results are both in line with previous research and “pretty scary” in their implications.

“Like it or not, social media has been a platform that has enabled this type of retelling on a really broad scale and at a really fast pace,” she noted.

The fragmentation of traditional news media into media with direct bias (think Fox News on the right or The New Yorker on the left) along with the “echo chamber” effect has exacerbated the bias. Many people neither consume information from outside their small circle nor look for alternative sources.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is this increasing polarization, where I probably won’t really trust anyone who exists outside of my echo chamber [as a] Source of information, ”said Melumad. “Again, I think social media makes this matter worse because it’s so easy to just act in our respective echo chambers.”

Another disturbing finding the researchers found was the trend towards negativity, even when the original story was positive, and stories tend to get more negative with each repetition.

“The further a retelling is from the original source – think again about the phone game – the more negative and stubborn it becomes,” said Melumad. “It’s actually really difficult to turn this effect off.”

“Like it or not, social media has been a platform that enables this kind of retelling on a really broad scale and at a really fast pace.” –Shiri Melumad

Nothing but the truth

Eliminating the distortion is difficult. Melumad said the responsibility for the unvarnished truth rests with both the narrator, to convey accurate information, and the recipient, to be a critical listener and seek original content. Of course, she added, it would help if content creators were careful about what they are producing.

“If you can somehow inspire writers or journalists to do their best not to make information so sensational as to convey facts in a more objective or dry manner, it would hopefully reduce that bias toward negativity,” she said.

Melumad said the research made her think about her own communication style and make a few changes. For example, now when she tells a friend about something she read on the news, she encourages her to read the original article.

“I’m trying to qualify my retelling by saying, ‘You know, that’s just my opinion on it. You should read this for yourself, ‘”she said.


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