In the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a website calling itself “WTO5 News” posted the headline “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president.” Pope Francis never made such an endorsement, but that didn’t stop the story from being shared, liked, or commented on nearly 1 million times on social media. Another site, the “Denver Guardian,” posted a story titled “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder suicide” the day before the election. Social media users engaged in some way with that story more than half a million times.
After the election, many experts worried the prevalence of such “fake news” on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter influenced the result. Now, a study of more than 16,000 Twitter users finds just a tiny fraction spread and saw the majority of misinformation, and that they were typically older and politically conservative. The authors say fake news may have been less pervasive on social media during the election than commonly assumed.
“If fake news on social media undercuts the public’s ability to tell apart truth and fiction, then we need to do something about it,” says Yochai Benkler, a law professor and social scientist at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. “But it’s critical that we correctly diagnose the problem.”
To investigate the spread of misinformation on social media, David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, and his colleagues examined tweets from 16,442 registered voters who also had Twitter accounts during the 2016 election. The demographics of the sample matched those of a 2016 Pew Research Center survey representative of U.S. voters who use Twitter, the researchers found.
Then the authors created a list of fake news sources by identifying media outlets that present content with the appearance of journalism but repeatedly publish misinformation without correcting or retracting it. One of the most popular sources of misinformation identified by the study is a site called “The Gateway Pundit,” which published false headlines including: “Anti-Trump Protesters Bused Into Austin, Chicago” and “Did a Woman Say the Washington Post Offered Her $1,000 to Accuse Roy Moore of Sexual Abuse?”
“If a site is repeatedly publishing inaccurate information and not correcting it, accurate news reporting is not really its goal,” Lazer says.
Just 0.1% of the more than 16,000 users shared more than 80% of the fake news generated by such sites, and 80% of that fake news appeared in the feeds of only 1.1% of users, Lazer and his colleagues report today in Science. The team also found that older, more politically conservative Twitter users were more likely to view and spread misinformation.
The research comes on the heels of another paper that reached similar conclusions about the spread of fake news on Facebook. That study’s lead author, Joshua Tucker, a political scientist at New York University in New York City, says that taken together the two studies suggest the majority of Americans are not sharing fake news or being exposed to it on social media. “[They] cut against the dominant narrative that fake news was everywhere on social media in 2016,” Tucker says.
Still, he says, even small amounts of fake news could have an impact on the political process, and further research is needed to determine just what that impact is.
Benkler adds that the findings might not apply to other countries, which have their own distinct media ecosystems. “What’s true for the U.S. may not hold in Brazil or the Philippines,” he says. “We need to extend this kind of work to the rest of the world, because this is a global problem.”