Information Technology

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On June 4, the satirical news site the Science Post published a block of “lorem ipsum” text under a frightening headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people shared the post, some of them quite earnestly — an inadvertent example, perhaps, of life imitating comedy.

Now, as if it needed further proof, the satirical headline’s been validated once again: According to a new study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.

Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

To verify that depressing piece of conventional Internet wisdom, Legout and his co-authors collected two data sets: the first, on all tweets containing Bit.ly-shortened links to five major news sources during a one-month period last summer; the second, on all of the clicks attached to that set of shortened links, as logged by Bit.ly, during the same period. After cleaning and collating that data, the researchers basically found themselves with a map to how news goes viral on Twitter.

And that map showed, pretty clearly, that “viral” news is widely shared — but not necessarily, you know, read. (I’m really only typing this sentence for 4 in 10 people in the audience.)

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