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16 February 2022updated 05 Apr 2022 2:04pm

Why falsehoods on Twitter spread faster than truth

Since the platform is perfectly designed for what Heidegger called "idle talk", it's no surprise that untruths proliferate there.

By Aaron James Wendland

In the first and only major study of its kind, researchers at MIT demonstrated that falsity on Twitter spreads quicker and further than truth. The researchers also noted that this is not a function of Twitter bots boosting falsehoods. Instead, the rate at which falsity spreads seems to be based on deep-seated human traits.

“False information online is often really novel and frequently negative,” said politics professor Brendan Nyhan in response to MIT’s research, adding that: “We know those are two features of information generally that grab our attention as human beings and that cause us to want to share that information with others – we’re attentive to novel threats and especially attentive to negative threats.”

Our tendency to focus on new and dangerous threats makes good evolutionary sense. But as much as it may seem so, Twitter is hardly the African savannah we humans emerged from 300,000 years ago. To understand why online falsity spreads quicker and further than truth, we need to analyse the importance of human community as well as the way Twitter encourages idle talk.

Being with others is an essential part of human life. We are particularly dependent on our parents and guardians in our youth and our friends and family in our old age, but work, travel, entertainment and every other aspect of our independent adult life involves coordinating our time and activities with others.

Given how important collaboration is for everyday life, human communication goes well beyond the description of facts such as “Water is H2O” or “Billy hit the baseball through the neighbour’s window”. We tell jokes and laugh. We get angry and shout. We play games and enjoy a good story. In short, a great deal of human discourse is about building a rapport with the people around us.

Discourse that is primarily about establishing a connection between people doesn’t tend to be concerned with truth. Imagine two friends discussing vaccine effectiveness against the latest Covid variant. Neither can pick up the phone and ring Dr Fauci to verify their respective claims, but they nevertheless engage in this talk to test each other and signal that they share a set of interests.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger calls this type of discourse “idle talk”. According to Heidegger, “When we engage in idle talk we do not so much understand the things which are talked about; we are only listening to what is said-in-the-talk as such. What is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially. We have the same thing in view because it is in the same averageness that we have a common understanding of what is said.”

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Briefly, the general meaning of words like “vaccine”, “effectiveness”, and “Covid” are easily understood and thus enable anyone to talk about vaccine effectiveness against Covid variants. But unless we are health reporters, virologist or epidemiologists, our conversation about vaccine effectiveness is detached from the context required to test the truth of our claims. Idle talk, as Heidegger puts it, “has lost its primary relationship to the entity being talked about”, but “the fact that talk is going on is a matter of consequence”.

[see also: Heidegger, the homesick philosopher]

Although idle talk is cut off from the context in which speakers could verify their claims, its ability to establish a connection between people gives it communal authority. As we have seen, talking casually about Covid requires no research or expertise, and this means idle talk about vaccines can effortlessly be shared with friends and colleagues. In fact, Heidegger says “the groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its becoming public; instead it encourages this” insofar as idle talk easily “spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character”.

Unsurprisingly, the mass appeal and communal authority of idle talk undermine genuine insight. 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. As Heidegger puts it in his idiosyncratic vocabulary: “The fact that an understanding of what is talked about is supposedly reached in idle talk means that idle talk discourages any new inquiry.” And this, in turn, means 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”.

While the generality of words combined with the importance of connecting with others often obscures the world around us, technology can intensify our basic tendencies to overlook the truth. In the 1960s, Heidegger noted the power of television to facilitate idle talk and shape public opinion. Today, influential TV personalities still push groundless claims, but it is Twitter that seems perfectly designed to amplify our tendency to engage in idle discourse.

Twitter, in Heidegger’s terms, “is something which anyone can take up” and its 280-character limit ensures that we focus on the general meaning of words and overlook the object we are talking about: “we are only listening to what-is-said-in-the-talk as such”. Specifically, Twitter’s character limit abstracts a given claim from contexts in which it could be verified, and therefore forces users to rely heavily on the “common understanding” of the words contained in a tweet. Yet as we’ve seen, relying on the general meaning of terms like “vaccine”, “effectiveness” and “Covid” without verifying the effectiveness of a vaccine in a laboratory leads to a superficial understanding of vaccine effectiveness and facilitates the spread of groundless Covid information.

[see also: It is time to regulate Twitter and other social media platforms as publishers]

Twitter’s “retweet” and “trending” features also stimulate our need to connect with people. Writing on Twitter “does not communicate in such a way as to let the entity [being discussed] be grasped in its primary context”, Heidegger might say, “but rather communicates by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along”. The ease with which idle talk spreads via retweets allows it to “take on an authoritative character”. And in Heidegger’s terms the sway of idle Twitter discourse “releases one from the task of genuinely understanding” topics such as vaccine effectiveness and thus leaves one at the mercy of public trends.

Twitter’s interface relies on our deep-seated need for community but simultaneously amplifies our tendency to engage in idle discourse. And since tweets are detached from the contexts in which they could be verified and leave the difficult task of real inquiry undone, it’s not surprising that falsity on Twitter spreads quicker and further than truth. Ultimately, this means Twitter isn’t as innocent as its neutral-bot boosting makes it seem. And while Twitterstorms aren’t stampedes on the ancient African savannah, we should treat the platform itself as a new and dangerous threat.

Aaron James Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto. He is the co-editor of Heidegger on Technology and Wittgenstein and Heidegger (both Routledge).

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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