How Fake News Goes Viral: When FYI Becomes TMI


You’re walking through the halls of school one day, and you hear a group of fellow students say something about your best friend that you know isn’t true. As you go about your day, you realize that this rumor is spreading fast. Correcting the students with factual information doesn’t seem to work; everyone just goes on believing the fake story. The day continues and you feel more and more discouraged. How did this rumor start? How did everyone know about it so quickly? And why did no one believe you when you told the truth? 


The way that gossip spreads around a school is similar to how fake news spreads around the internet. It can start small, but grow very quickly, and it’s hard to contain once people start believing it. 

In the past few years, the term “fake news” has become a common phrase used everywhere from the White House podium to your daily meme thread. It's a force that is changing the way people around the world relate to their communities, their governments, and even to themselves. While fake news has existed for a long time, only recently has it been able to spread at incredibly fast rates and go viral to millions of people.


Fake news is false information intentionally presented as factual news with an intent to deceive. 

How It Works

Before the rise of social media, the spread of information was controlled by tv stations and newspaper companies. Today, just about anyone can create a headline or post a photo with no requirement that they represent accurate information. 

The dangerous thing is that fake news tends to spread even faster than facts. MIT researchers revealed that fake news stories are 70% more likely to spread than real news. Some people blame this on bots and fake accounts, but the study showed that fake news spreads much faster between real people, even without bot accounts. Fake news preys on our desire for sensational and provocative stories. Flashy, entertaining stories require less nuance and time to understand. 

This problem is made worse by social media companies who design their platforms to favor content that has more engagement and interaction. If a certain post begins to gain initial traction, as fake news typically does, social media platforms will continue to promote it onto more news feeds. If an account with a particularly large number of followers then finds it and shares it, the information quickly becomes viral. Accounts like this are called “super spreaders”. Super spreader accounts rarely create the initial content, but once they share the content, it is incredibly difficult to undo. Not only does real news travel slower than fake news, but trying to correct fake news that has gone viral is challenging. Whatever news a reader sees first forms an impression. Then, if they see that news being shared by thousands of others, it’s extremely difficult to change their mind and convince them that the information was fake. 

Increased political polarization in recent years has only fueled the spread of fake news. A study from The University of Colorado Boulder found that about one-fifth of social media users at the far ideological extremes were responsible for sharing nearly half of the fake news online. That means that the majority of fake news is coming from people that hold beliefs far outside general public opinion. It also results in fake news contradicting itself, as stories coming from either extreme are often completely at odds with one another, leaving little room for discussion or healthy debate. People will strongly disagree or strongly agree with fake news, which increases their likelihood of sharing it and pushing it to go viral.  

Why Care?

While fake news is garnering significant attention in today’s media landscape, its prevalence and importance will only grow in coming years. Increased capacity of artificial intelligence in social media algorithms to target, track, and increase audiences for specific content simultaneously expands convenience for consumers while increasing the dangers of fake news. 

Pressure has been placed on social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to improve their false content monitoring and address their content promotion algorithms, which boost the visibility of high-traffic posts frequently involving fake news. As recently as October 2020, both Facebook and YouTube have decided to reject ads globally that discourage people from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, but the ability for these policies to be enforced remains to be seen.

While action can and must be taken by social media and news companies to address the viral spread of fake news, individuals make a huge difference in stopping fake news from going viral. The next time you are reading a headline or article on social media, take the extra time to decipher whether it is fake news or not. Start by checking the source and searching other well-known sources to see if and how other news outlets are covering the story. Read beyond the headline and search for where the story initially came from and what support there is to back up its claims. See if you can learn about the author of the story and if they have published credible work before. And always be sure to question your own biases to consider if you are more prone to respond to the story in a favorable way. The ability of us as individuals to understand fake news and distinguish between it and true news is essential to maintaining a well-informed society and preventing the dangerous viral spread of fake news.

Think Further

  1. Where should the responsibility for addressing fake news fall? On the individuals, media platforms, governments, or someone else entirely?
  2. Do you believe there is a difference between the right to free speech and the right to a platform to spread that speech? Why or why not? 
  3. What are examples of fake news you’ve seen recently? How did you discern it was fake news? 


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Learn More

  1. Braun, Joshua A., and Jessica L. Eklund. “Fake news, real money: Ad tech platforms, profit-driven hoaxes, and the business of journalism.” Digital Journalism 7, no. 1 (2019): 1-21.
  2. Tandoc Jr, Edson C., Zheng Wei Lim, and Richard Ling. “Defining “fake news” A typology of scholarly definitions.” Digital journalism 6, no. 2 (2018): 137-153.
  3. Maheshwari, Sapna. “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 20, 2016.
  4. Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. “The spread of true and false news online.” Science 359, no. 6380 (2018): 1146-1151.
  5. Trammell III, Travis Ira. Fake News Risk: Modeling Management Decisions to Combat Disinformation. Stanford University, 2020.