From Facts to Fake News: How Information Gets Distorted

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Wharton’s Shiri Melumad speaks with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM about how news becomes increasingly biased when it’s repeatedly retold.

Remember the old childhood game of telephone? One kid whispers a phrase in another kid’s ear, and it gets passed along until the final child in the chain repeats it out loud. Inevitably, the words change along the way, subject to the cognitive interpretation of the listener.

Retelling stories may be harmless amusement on the playground, but new research from Wharton sounds the alarm on the grown-up version by revealing how news can become more biased as it is repeated from person to person. As information travels farther away from its original source, retellers tend to select facts, offer their own interpretations, and lean toward the negative, according to the study titled “The Dynamics of Distortion: How Successive Summarization Alters the Retelling of News.”

“This paper started because I was interested initially in understanding how we end up with fake news. But quickly I realized that this project was going to be about something much broader, and I think more interesting, which is how do original news stories become distorted as they’re retold sequentially across people,” Wharton marketing professor Shiri Melumad said in an interview with Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Social Media Amplifies Distortion

Melumad co-authored the research along with Wharton marketing professor Robert Meyer and Wharton doctoral candidate Yoon Duk Kim. The scholars analyzed data from 11,000 participants across 10 experiments and concluded that news undergoes a stylistic transformation called “disagreeable personalization” as it is retold. Facts are replaced by opinions as the teller tries to convince the listener of a certain point of view, especially if the teller considers himself more knowledgeable on the topic than his audience.

The effect 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 proffered by the person who posted it. Melumad said that finding is both consistent with previous research and “pretty scary” in its implications.

“Whether we like it or not, social media has been a platform that allows for this type of retelling at a really broad scale and at a really fast pace,” she noted.

The fragmentation of traditional news media into outlets that have outright bias (think Fox News to the right or The New Yorker to the left), along with the “echo chamber” effect, has worsened the distortion. Many people neither consume information from outside their small circle nor seek out alternative sources.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is this increased polarization whereby anyone who’s existing outside of my echo chamber, I’m probably not going to really trust [as a] source of information,” Melumad said. “Again, I think social media is worsening this matter because it’s so easy to just operate within our respective echo chambers.”

Another disturbing result the researchers found was the trend toward negativity, even if the original story was positive, and stories tend to become more negative with each reiteration.

“The further removed a retelling is from the original source — again, think of the telephone game — the more negative and more opinionated it becomes,” Melumad said. “It’s really hard to turn this effect off, actually.”

“Whether we like it or not, social media has been a platform that allows for this type of retelling at a really broad scale and at a really fast pace.”  –Shiri Melumad

Nothing but the Truth

Clearing the distortion is difficult. Melumad said the responsibility for the unvarnished truth falls on both the teller to convey accurate information and the recipient to be a critical listener and seek out original content. Of course, she added, it would help if content creators would be more mindful of what they produce.

“If somehow you can incentivize writers or journalists to do their best to not sensationalize information as much, but rather relay facts in a more objective or dry manner, hopefully this would reduce this bias towards negativity,” she said.

Melumad said the research left her reflecting on her own style of communication and making a few changes. Now, when she tells a friend about something she read in the news, for example, she encourages them to read the original article.

“I try to qualify my retelling by saying, ‘You know, this is just my opinion on this. You should read this for yourself,’” she said.

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