Revealed: The top 10 emojis that suggest you could be reading fake news

Next time you see a tweet making a bold claim about the COVID-19 pandemic accompanied by this emoji - ⚠️ - be sceptical.

The warning sign - an exclamation mark inside a yellow triangle - is the favourite emoji of people spreading misinformation on Twitter, a new study has found

Others that could serve as a warning you're about to read some nonsense  ⬇️, 🚨, 🤔, 😂, 🔴, ✔️, 📢, ❌ and ▶️.

If you can't see those on your device, they're a downward pointing arrow, a police siren, a thinking face, the infamous cry-laugh, a red circle, a green tick, a bullhorn, a big red X and a triangle pointing right in a blue square. 

Researchers in Europe analysed 1500 tweets debunked by fact-checking agencies like Snopes, looking at what kinds of content they contain and how fast they spread. Of the 1500 tweets, all made between January and July last year, 1274 were outright false and 226 partially so. 

They found more than 10 percent of all emojis used were the warning sign, far ahead of the second-placed downward arrow, on just under 6 percent. 

"It appears authors make use of emojis to attract attention to their claim (loudspeaker, red circle) and to convey distrust or dislike (down-wards arrow, cross) or danger (warning sign, police light)," the study said.

"In our data set, the thinking emoji is mostly used as an expression of doubt, frequently relating to whether something is fake news or not. Tweets with the laughing emoji are either making fun of someone (e.g. the WHO Director-General) or laughing at how dumb others are. 

"Both the play button and the tick are often used for checklists, although the latter is occasionally also conveying approval."

Online Social Networks and Media - emojis used by fake news
Photo credit: Online Social Networks and Media

Emojis are used by peddlers of misinformation to "appeal to the emotions", they said - suggesting health authorities should perhaps consider following suit, if they want people to share correct information.

"On the one hand, you would rather expect a trusted source to have a neutral, non-colloquial tone. On the other hand, it seems too advisable to get to the typical tone in social media, eg. by also using emojis to some degree."

Examples of the misinformation people spread included claims Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised the release of lions onto the streets to keep people indoors (the footage 'proving' the claim was actually shot in South Africa four years earlier), and that locked-down Italians threw money into the streets to "demonstrate that health is not bought with money" (the photos were actually from a 2019 bank robbery in Venezuela). 

Celebrities to blame?

More than half the 1500 tweets included in the study were by people with verified accounts - which typically have more followers than non-verified accounts.

"If a popular user spread false or partially false news, then it is more likely to attract more attention from other users compared to the non-popular Twitter handle... This is in line with work by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology who also found that celebrities are so-called 'super-spreaders' of misinformation in the current crisis."

False claims spread faster than partially false claims, they found. Ironically, many of them were "concerned with discrediting other information on social media" - but getting it wrong. 

The authors concluded by calling on social media companies to do more policing of their networks.

"Right as we concluded our work on this article, 'doctors, nurses and health experts [... sounded] the alarm' over a 'global infodemic, with viral misinformation on  social media threatening lives around the world'.

"They target tech companies, specifically those that run social media platforms. We take their letter as encouragement. The companies might be able to filter much more misinformation than they do now, but to battle this infodemic much more is needed.

"We hope we could help to arm those that seek for truth."

The latest research was published this week in journal Online Social Networks and Media.