From facts to fake news: How information gets distorted

Wharton’s Shiri Melumad on how news becomes increasingly biased when it’s repeatedly retold.

New research from Wharton sounds the alarm on the playground game of telephone in real life 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.”

Cartoon of a world map with people holding smartphones and magnifying glasses, images of bullhorns and frown faces and stock market signs indicating world news information being disseminated.

“This paper started because I was interested initially in understanding how we end up with fake news,” says Wharton marketing professor Shiri Melumad. “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.

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.

“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 says. “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 says. “It’s really hard to turn this effect off, actually.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.