On Feb. 16, 2018, mere hours after Academy Award-nominated "Black Panther" first released to theaters, fake news trolls and malicious social media bots went to work.
"My friend and I went to the #BlackPanther premier and he was brutally beaten for 'not belonging there' by an angry group who did not have tickets. Very sad, night ruined," one account posted on Twitter, including an unrelated photo of an domestic abuse victim. The incident never happened, and the account was later suspended.
CyLab's Kathleen M. Carley and some of her graduate students watched as this and many other similar fake stories of racially motivated attacks swirled around Twitter during Black Panther's opening weekend.
"We believe this was the first time that anyone captured the full timeline of the spreading of fake news," says Carley, a professor in School of Computer Science's Institute for Software Research (ISR).
In their study, "Beaten Up on Twitter? Exploring Fake News and Satirical Responses During the Black Panther Movie Event," Carley and her students explored the differences and relationships between nonsatirical "fake news" and satirical responses on Twitter.
In their analysis, the researchers collected all tweets containing "#BlackPanther" posted up to a week before and a week after the movie's theatrical release. In addition to the nonsatirical fake stories, the group found a number of satirical fake news tweets – ones in which users reposted the original fake stories but included images from cartoons, movies or classical art that depicted unrealistic violence or unrelated content.
"Some users were using satire, saying things like, 'I went to the movie and I got beaten up,' and including a photo of a SpongeBob SquarePants beaten up," Carley says. "We think this actually helped discredit the original fake story post."
In the two-week period, the researchers found 249 fake tweets from 238 unique Twitter handles. Of those, 178 were labeled as "satire" while 71 were labeled as nonsatire. Using an algorithm called "CMU Bothunter," the researchers found that 14 of the 238 accounts (9 percent) were bots.
Accounting for all retweets and replies, the dataset of all satirical and nonsatirical fake stories totaled nearly 300,000 out of an overall data set of over 5 million tweets about Black Panther in the two-week period. CMU Bothunter estimated over 150,000 of those tweets were generated by bots, with nearly 3,000 of the bot-tweets involving fake news.
The team noticed that a peculiar thing would happen after a nonsatirical fake story post was followed by a satirical post.
"We were able to see that fake news stories could be stopped by counter stories that were basically satire," Carley says. "A fake story would go up, it would be spread through retweets, then a satirical story would go up, and the spreading of the first story would stop."
Carley says they noticed one more way in which the spreading of fake news was stopped, and she suggests that everyone should employ it.
"We saw that fake news could be stopped by people calling it out," she says. "People would quote the original message and say, 'That didn't happen.'"
The researchers say that the number of tweets calling-out the fake news was greater than the fake news tweets themselves. This power-in-numbers helped halt the spread of the fake news tweets.
Other authors in this study included ISR post-doctoral associate Matthew Babcock and ISR Ph.D. student David Beskow.