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New Study Finds Fake News Spreads Faster and Deeper Than Verified Stories on Twitter

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s comforting to imagine that when faced with outright falsehoods, readers would recognize "fake news" for what it is and stop it in its tracks. Indeed, some have argued that the only reason fake news stories have penetrated the national conversation is because bots and nefarious outside actors have tried to push lies on a virtuous public. But reporting on a new study, Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic writes that data science contradicts that idea. In fact, it seems we like fake news, seek it out and spread it much more quickly than the truth.

To investigate how fake news spreads, MIT data scientist Soroush Vosoughi and his colleagues collected 12 years of data from Twitter. They then looked at tweets that had been investigated and debunked by fact-checking websites. Using bot technology software, they were able to exclude any traffic created by bots from their results. As Katie Langin at Science reports, that left them with a set of 126,000 “fake news” stories shared on Twitter 4.5 million times by some 3 million people. They looked at how quickly those stories spread versus tweets that were verified as true. What they found was that fake stories reached more people and propagated faster through the Twittersphere than real stories.

“It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” Vosoughi tells Meyer. “And that is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.” The research appears in the journal Science.

Based on the study's findings, it appears that people are more willing to share fake news than accurate news. A false story was 70 percent more likely to earn a retweet than verified news, Meyer reports. While fake news was found in every category, from business to sports and science, false political stories, not surprisingly, were the most likely to be retweeted.

So why are people seemingly drawn to these false tweets? The study doesn’t address that directly, but the researchers do hypothesize that the novelty of fake news makes it more appealing to share. Brian Resnick at Vox reports that studies have shown that people are more likely to believe headlines or stories that they’ve read or heard many times before but were less likely to share them. They are more likely to share novel stories on social media that are emotionally or morally charged, even if they are not verified.

It’s that urge that fake news is designed to appeal to. “Fake news is perfect for spreadability: It’s going to be shocking, it’s going to be surprising, and it’s going to be playing on people’s emotions, and that’s a recipe for how to spread misinformation,” Miriam Metzger, a UC Santa Barbara communications researcher not involved in the study, tells Resnick.

So what can be done to combat fake news? According to a press release, the team points out that the platforms themselves are currently complicit in spreading fake news by allowing them to appear on things like trending lists and by allowing fake news stories to game their algorithms. The researchers suggest the social media companies should take steps to assess those publishing information on their sites or they risk some sort of government regulation.

Twitter’s cooperation with the study was a good start. In a perspective paper published alongside the study, David Lazer of Northeastern University and Matthew Baum of the Harvard Kennedy School are now calling for more cooperation among social media companies and academics to get a handle on the anything-but-fake problem.

The Sightless Visionary Who Invented Cruise Control

Smithsonian Magazine

In late 2011, Steve Mahan, executive director of California’s Santa Clara Valley Blind Center, who is legally blind, told Google engineers he’d “like to be the first unlicensed driver to get behind the wheel” of the self-driving vehicle then under development by the company. In October 2015, Mahan got his chance. From the “driver’s seat” of a Firefly, a Google prototype vehicle devoid of steering wheel and foot pedals, he negotiated the streets of Austin, Texas. What was soloing like? “Just perfectly normal,” says Mahan, who drove for 35 years until sight impairment forced him to surrender his driver’s license. “The automated system drives the way that you were taught to drive.”

While experts caution that fully autonomous driving—automobiles operating safely without any direct human intervention—is at least a generation away, its eventual beneficiaries will have a pioneering and completely sightless inventor named Ralph Teetor to thank. Cruise control, Teetor’s 1950s electro-mechanical device that partially automated driving speed, paved the way for more recent digital technologies like GPS driving directions, hazard anticipatory breaking and active lane control.

Childhood misfortune rudely thrust Teetor into the challenges of everyday navigation. Born in 1890 in Hagerstown, Indiana, Teetor grew up amidst a constellation of family-owned manufacturing businesses that adapted and evolved from building bicycles to automobile engines. When he was just five, Teetor accidentally blinded one eye while playing with a knife. Within a year, sympathetic opthalmia, a condition in which trauma to one eye induces damage to the other, rendered him completely blind.

Teetor, however, quickly honed compensatory skills. “His sense of touch was legendary,” wrote his daughter Marjorie Teetor Meyer in a 1995 biography. “His hands were his eyes,” recalls Ralph Meyer, his namesake grandson. “On Christmas mornings, I’d bring my favorite toy over and let him ‘see it.’”

As Meyer explained it, his grandfather learned to perambulate Hagerstown on his own, sensing building corners by the subtle echo of his metal-tipped shoes, for example, or counting steps between known landmarks. He could even avoid turn-of-the century traffic hazards. “He could smell the horses coming. And the very first cars were not quiet,” he adds.

Encouraged by family, Teetor routinely broke barriers. “After high school,” notes Bill Hammack, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor who has studied Teetor’s knack for innovation, “he decided to become an engineer in an era when many colleges refused to even consider his application.” Because Teetor’s cousin Neva Deardorff was an economics graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, he personally convinced Penn’s engineering dean to admit him to the school’s mechanical engineering program. Ralph needed little more than Neva’s assistance in reading textbooks and written assignments. “Successful engineers think in images,” says Hammack. “Their minds occupy a nonverbal world, not easily reducible to words. Ralph Teetor had this kind of thinking in spades.”

Following graduation, Teetor eventually returned home, but not before devising a breakthrough process for dynamically balancing steam turbines on U.S. Navy warships. When his father and three uncles opted to specialize in piston ring production under the Perfect Circle brand, Ralph became the company’s lead engineer—and eventually its president. Because better piston rings meant more efficient and powerful engines, Perfect Circle piston rings soon became standard.

Family lore holds that the jerky accelerator foot of Harry Lindsay, Teetor’s patent attorney, friend and frequent chauffeur, originally inspired cruise control. More likely, there were other influences. During World War II, for example, the U.S. imposed a nationwide 35 mph speed limit to save gas and tire rubber. Moreover, as grandson Meyer explains: “As president of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) [he gave] speeches themed around automobile safety. Speeds had gotten high enough that highway accidents were catastrophic. Safety consciousness played as big a role…as the variability of the drivers that drove for him.”

Teetor envisioned a speed mechanism controlled by the motorist. Upon reaching a dialed-in speed, the motorist’s foot would feel resisting pressure from the accelerator as a warning. Holding the pedal steady would enable the motorist to maintain dialed-in speed, pressing down would deliver acceleration.

The first “Speedostat” prototype—what company insiders called the “Stat”—comprised a dashboard speed selector connected to an engine compartment mechanism running off the drive shaft. As driver-set speed neared, the governor mechanism overcame spring tension to activate a vacuum-driven piston capable of pushing back against the gas pedal. Teetor received a patent for the speed control device on August 22, 1950. During early tests, says Meyer, as a driver steered a test vehicle, Teetor sprawled across its floor, hand on the gas pedal.

Ralph R. Teetor's 1950 patent for a "Speed Control Device For Resisting Operation of the Accelerator" (U.S. Patent No. 2,519,859)

The first good Stat working model, which emerged in 1949, lacked a “speed lock”—a means to automatically sustain dialed-in speed. “He was very concerned that people would fall asleep at the wheel,” says Meyer.

Five years later, Popular Mechanics described Speedostat as “a kind of power-operated accelerator, or governor with extras. It definitely takes us several miles farther down the road to automatic pilots for cars.” As Teetor lobbied automotive manufacturers to adopt Stat as factory install, he eventually added the speed lock capability: an electro-magnetic motor maintained dialed-in speed until the driver tapped the brake pedal.

In 1958, Chrysler was first to offer Speedostat as a luxury model option. A year later, its popularity influenced Chrysler to offer Speedostat on all car models. Next came General Motors’ Cadillac Division, which re-christened and marketed the device as “Cruise Control.” Over the next decade, Cruise Control continued as a convenient, though not essential, feature. All that changed dramatically in 1973, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an embargo against the United States. Teetor’s remarkable innovation emerged as a widely-accepted, gas-conserving motorist tool. Studies at the time showed that the national speed limit prompted by the oil embargo saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day.

Teetor (left) with General Motors automotive executive Ed Cole (Automotive Hall of Fame)

The oil embargo found Ralph Teetor, in retirement, having sold Perfect Circle to Toledo, Ohio’s Dana Corporation in 1963, but continuing to work in his private workshop,  a one-story, city block-long glass and brick building in Hagerstown. Sadly, however, just as Cruise Control was coming into its own, arthritis was progressively crippling Teetor’s “seeing hands.” He died in 1982 and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame six years later.

When prompted to reflect how Teetor might react to the latest autonomous driving advances, Meyer says, “I still marvel at his invention, but he didn’t invent Cruise Control with the idea that somebody wouldn’t be driving. His was an analog time and now we’re in a digital world.”

A Perfect Circle colleague once asked his grandfather how much more might have been accomplished had he been able to see. “I probably couldn’t have done as much,” Teetor reflected. “I can concentrate, and you can’t.” His grandson says, “There was a purity in not being biased by his eyes.”

Revolutionary Design: The Cuban Film Poster

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features a white candelabrum set against a dark background. The candles, although white, drip red, recalling blood. The title of the film advertised appears across the top of the poster. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.In recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15, 2019), this week’s Object Of The Day posts celebrate Latinx designers’ works in the collection.  This post is written by Maeve Coudrelle. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought major changes to the country’s cultural fabric. Less than three months after the new revolutionary state came...

Encompassing the globe : Portugal and the world in the 16th & 17th centuries / edited by Jay A. Levenson ; with contributions by Diogo Ramada Curto and Jack Turner

Smithsonian Libraries
Published on the occasion of the exhibition, June 24-September 16, 2007, organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in partnership with the National Museum of African Art.

Die Familie der Cycladeen : in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreiben / von S. Clessin

Smithsonian Libraries
"Neu herausgegeben und vervollständigt von Dr. H.C. Küster, nach dessen Tode fortgesetzt von Dr. W. Kobelt und H.C. Weinkauff."--Series t.p.

Berichtigungen: p. [283].

Motifs de broderie copte

Smithsonian Libraries
At head of title: L'art chrétien en Egypte.

The airship parade : march and two-step / by John J. Fitzpatrick

Smithsonian Libraries
For piano.

"Respectfully dedicated to Mr. Frank M. Atkins"--P. 2.

Illustrated t.p. features a biplane, a monoplane, and an airship in a cloudy sky.

Verso of p. 5 contains publisher's advertisement (first p. of chorus) of four vocals by Ben Ritchie: I want you all the time; If you find you can't be happy, be as happy as you can; Could you learn to love me? and I wonder where you are to night.

Facsimile of the Washington manuscript of Deuteronomy and Joshua in the Freer collection / With an introduction by Henry A. Sanders

Smithsonian Libraries
"A companion volume containing a full discussion and collation of the manuscript" published simultaneously in University of Michigan studies, Humanistic series. vol. VIII. cf. Introd., p. [v]

Birds of New York, by Elon Howard Eaton ..

Smithsonian Libraries
Plates prepared by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

On some new and rare British Crustacea

Smithsonian Libraries
Detached "From the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Ser. 6. Vol. xviii., July 1896."

Title on spine: Scott. Crustacea. Ann. & Mag. Nat. Hist. 1892-1910.

A contribution to the paleontology of Trinidad, by Carlotta Joaquina Maury. With drawings by Gilbert Dennison Harris

Smithsonian Libraries
From the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, v. 15, 2d ser. Pub. in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the academy, March 21, 1912.

"Issued November 22d, 1912"--Cover.
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