Sometimes it seems like it’s getting harder to find the truth.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently released a study on how news spreads on Twitter. They found that false stories were 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than true ones.

Like a virus, false news also spreads fast; the study found that it took true stories six times longer than false ones to reach 1,500 people.


Professor Sinan Aral, one of the study’s authors, said: “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information.”

Novel information. Interesting choice of words.

We talk about separating fact from fiction. Yet fiction can be the most meaningful route to many truths.

The best novels draw us deep into worlds familiar and unfamiliar. The plots appeal to our brains and hearts in a way that drives authentic insight. We get into the psyche of characters. Novels aren’t genuine – but they are real. Just like the stories told in songs, movies, TV shows, poems, paintings or any form of art.

You don’t need a study to know that, but several have made the point.

One involved the Harry Potter series. Researchers in Italy and the U.K. looked at the effect of reading the series on students in elementary school, high school and university. Many storylines in the books revolve around outcasts and people who are stigmatized. The study found that Potter readers showed less prejudice towards groups like immigrants and refugees.

In another study, published in the journal Science, researchers at The New School in New York gave participants reading assignments. Some read excerpts from genre fiction, some from literary fiction and some from non-fiction. One group read nothing. Then all participants took a test to measure how well they could understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.

For three groups, the results weren’t noteworthy. However the literary fiction readers showed a significant boost in their capacity to grasp what others think and feel.

The body of research consistently shows that fiction does mould us, says Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor and author of the book The Storytelling Animal.

He suggests that virtually all storytelling increases society’s fund of empathy, and reinforces an ethic of decency and justice.

“The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence,” Gottschall has written. Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than non-fiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read non-fiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”

This isn’t an either/or proposition. News stories and novels, facts and fiction, illuminate in their own ways.

“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts,” Maya Angelou once wrote. “Facts can obscure the truth.”

To Stephen King, “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

“Writing fiction,” said author Khaled Hosseini, “is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”

Not a new notion, but still a novel idea.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

March 21, 2018

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