In the first and only major study of its kind, researchers at MIT demonstrated that lies on Twitter spread much faster and reach more people than truthful statements.
Stunned, aren’t you?
False messages, spread on Twitter during the 11-year study, reached up to 10x more people than true stories, with (no surprise) fake political news far outperforming other false claims about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, and financial information. The researchers also noted that this is not a function of Twitter bots boosting falsehoods, but instead, the rate at which falsity spreads was generated organically and based on deep-seated human traits.
Like what you ask?
Writing for The New Statesman, Dr. Aaron James Wendland posits that people aren’t interested in truly understanding a matter on social media and care far more about establishing and maintaining a connection with their “tribal group.” He references the philosopher Martin Heidegger who, long before Twitter, identified its type of interactions as “idle talk” and wrote: “When we engage in idle talk we do not so much understand the things which are talked about; we are only listening … what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially.”
Wendland observes that the conversations spread through Twitter are most times cut off from the context that allows participants to verify the claims, but no one cares; its connection and movement through the “tribe” gives it communal authority. He says, “If a particular claim about vaccine effectiveness holds sway in your community, then your need to maintain relationships may well trump your impulse to challenge authority or your willingness to do the difficult work of discovering the truth.”
This is a perfect example of how tribalism works and the sway it holds over an individual’s thinking. Tribalism commands you to not only proclaim that your team is always right, but also that your opposing team is barely human. If you weren’t aware, one of the main goals of any civilization is to suppress tribalism so that we can live together without slaughtering one another.
But so it goes on Twitter where tribalistic behavior rules, with writer F. H. Buckley calling the whole thing a sport of, “sneering at people you despise.” Our entire culture is marinated in these exchanges with people obnoxiously mouthing off simply because they have an audience. As journalist Rebecca Sugar says, “Everyone is Whoopi Goldberg in their own small way.”
Boldly stating lies or placidly not challenging them is one part of the Twitter equation, but suppressing truthful counterpoints is the other. In his article, Wendland quotes Heidegger again when he says that idle talk, “serves not so much to keep being-in-the-world open for us in an articulated understanding, as rather to close it off and cover up the entities within the world.”
Although I likely don’t have to give you examples of this in action on Twitter and elsewhere in the mass media – who never met a truth they won’t deny and rarely miss opportunities to be wrong – I’ll still go ahead and have ex-New York Times writer Bari Weiss speak:
“Where can I start? Well, when you have the chief reporter on the beat of COVID for The New York Times talking about how questioning or pursuing the question of the lab leak is racist, the world has gone mad. When you're not able to say out loud and in public there are differences between men and women, the world has gone mad. When we’re not allowed to acknowledge that rioting is rioting and it is bad and that silence is not violence, but violence is violence, the world has gone mad. When you're not able to say the Hunter Biden laptop is a story worth pursuing, the world has gone mad. When, in the name of progress, young school children, as young as kindergarten, are being separated in public schools because of their race, and that is called progress instead of segregation, the world has gone mad.”
Given all this, if there’s one thing Twitter and its social media peers have taught us, it’s that you’re never too old to learn something stupid.
Pulling back the veil of Twitter
The primary reason the lie machines of social media succeed is that our fallen world hates the truth, especially when it negatively impacts and threatens it in some way. The only cure for the problem is a spiritual work of God in a person, something noted by John Calvin who wrote, “Error can never be eradicated from the heart of man until the true knowledge of God has been implanted in it.”
The fallen nature of humanity is why you continually see statements in Scripture such as Jesus telling His detractors: “Because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me” (John 8:45) and Paul asking his readers, “So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal. 4:16).
Lies spread like the speed of light on Twitter because people “turn away their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:4) and they hate being corrected because, “Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19-20).
Until a spiritual transformation occurs in the heart of a person, they won’t care about the truth, but will instead just manage information to support the lies they live in and mock those outside their tribe. Like poet Thomas Gray said, “Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise.”
A good musical illustration of living in such ignorance is Little Lies, which is a song on Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night album, whose chorus goes:
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
Tell me lies
Tell me, tell me lies
Oh no-no, you can't disguise
You can't disguise
No, you can't disguise
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
The song is about a souring relationship and a person suspending disbelief about its reality, reveling in untruth because they can’t face up to facts. Instead, they want to be fed lies so they continue to feel good in their alternate reality.
Given the research study confirming how fast and far lies spread on Twitter, I’d say Fleetwood Mac is spot on with their song as it relates to our culture today; it only needs one tweak to bring it up to date: “Tell me lies, tell me sweet Twitter lies”.
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.