A new study confirms your worst fears about fake news in the U.S. — it’s widespread, skews pro-Trump, and is mostly consumed by your conservative uncle.
Oh, and fact checking hasn’t worked at all.
A group of academic researchers have published what they are calling the first scientific, data-based study of Americans’ exposure to fake news in the month surrounding the 2016 U.S. election.
Combining survey responses and browsing histories of a representative sample of 2,525 Americans, the researchers found that one in four news consumers visited a fake news between Oct. 7 and Nov. 14, 2017.
The report also studied the content itself. Fake news skewed almost entirely pro-Trump, and was consumed most voraciously by the most politically conservative Americans, according to the researchers.
The researchers noted that fake news did have an impact, with a sizable portion of conservative Americans over 60 consuming around one fake news story per day during the time period studied.
“These results contribute to the ongoing debate about the problem of ‘filter bubbles’ by showing that the ‘echo chamber’ is deep (33.16 articles from fake news websites on average) but narrow (the group consuming so much fake news represents only 10% of the public),” wrote the study’s authors.
Even worse, the survey showed that attempts to counter fake news aren’t working. Fact-checking websites like Snopes or PolitiFact are failing to reach fake news readers. The study’s authors found that literally none of people who read a fake news article read the corresponding de-bunk from a fact checking site.
Entitled “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign,” political scientists Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Andrew Guess of Princeton University, and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter published the study on Dec. 20, 2016.
They define “fake news” as “factually dubious for-profit articles” and used a previously published study that classified fake news websites and articles to inform their own categorization. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump regularly uses the term “fake news” to describe unfavorable coverage of his administration from legitimate news outlets.
-heavily concentrated among w/most conservative info diets
-Facebook key vector of exposure
-fact-checks did not reach those exposed pic.twitter.com/5BtSYSFIa9
— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) January 2, 2018
Though the study’s data was gathered from October 7 – November 14 in 2016, the study comes at a time when fake news continues to dominate conversation at the highest levels of the media.
The New York Times’ new publisher A. G. Sulzberger wrote in a letter to readers Monday that “misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together.”
I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair “press,” now often referred to as Fake News Media. Phony and non-existent “sources” are being used more often than ever. Many stories & reports a pure fiction!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2017
The study aims to answer questions about specifically who consumes fake news, the political bent of the news, and the extent of its dissemination. But it also examines the role of social media and whether fact checking reaches its intended readers.
Facebook plays the largest role in leading readers to and disseminating fake news, and fact checking articles almost always fail to reach consumers of fake news. It does not tackle how fake news affected political perceptions or behavior, like voting.
Overall, the key findings of the study were:
27.4 percent of Americans over the age of 18 – which translates to more than 65 million people – visited a pro-Trump or pro-Clinton fake news website during the time surveyed.
Fake news comprised 2.6 percent of all hard news consumed during that period.
Fake news skews conservative: of the average 5.4 fake news articles readers consumed, 5 were pro-Trump.
There are more conservative fake news viewers than liberal ones: 65.9 percent of the 10 percent most conservative voters visited at least one pro-Trump fake news site.
40 percent of Trump supporters and 15 percent of Clinton supporters visited at least one fake news article.
Americans 60 years and older read the most fake news.
People were more likely to visit Facebook immediately prior to reading a fake news article than any other social media site, including Twitter, and even Google and GMail.
Only half of the people who had visited a fake news website had also visited a fact-checking site.
None of the fake news readers saw a fact check article specifically debunking a piece of fake news they had consumed.
Despite this bleak picture of the reach of fake news, especially amongst older and conservative Americans, the study characterizes fake news as more of a supplement to an already polarized media diet.
“In general, fake news consumption seems to be a complement to, rather than a substitute for, hard news,” the authors write. “Visits to fake news websites are highest among people who consume the most hard news and do not measurably decrease among the most politically knowledgeable individuals.”
The authors also note the study’s limits: it only examined website visits, which exclude consumption on mobile devices and social media. Considering that as of July 2017, 85 percent of adults consume news on their smart phones “at least some of the time,” according to Pew, that’s a pretty huge exclusion.
It would be desirable to observe fake news consumption on mobile devices and social media platforms directly and to evaluate the effects of exposure to misinformation on people’s factual beliefs and attitudes toward candidates and parties. Future research should evaluate selective exposure to other forms of hyper-politicized media including hyperpartisan Twitter feeds and Facebook groups, internet forums such as Reddit, more established but often factually questionable websites like Breitbart, and more traditional media like talk radio and cable news
Ya, that would probably be helpful to understanding the scope of the fake news problem in America. But if studies like this one serve as a sort of meta-fact check for the media and news consumers as a whole, according to this study, that information is unlikely to reach the readers who should know about it most. So it’s definitely a good idea to familiarize yourself with how to spot and fight fake news ASAP.