President Donald Trump famously complains about “fake news” — but a new study shows his followers are far more likely to read and share phony stories online.
Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter embarked on a study analyzing internet traffic gathered from 2,525 Americans.
Behavior scientists have been researching the spread of fake news and what people actually remember about what they read from fake news sites However, according to the New York Times, this new study is the first example of hard data on those who view fake news and spread it.
Their first major data point was that fake news sites have an extremely limited reach. At least one in four Americans has seen at least one news story that is false, but conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump are the largest consumers. "On 289 such sites, about 80 percent of bogus articles supported Trump," the Times quoted the study. In fact, the far-right (approximately 10 percent of the sample) made up roughly 65 percent of visits to sites that published more than two stories that were false. Trump supporters were three times more likely to read such sites over supporters of Hillary Clinton.
However, those Trump supporters only read on average five false stories over the course of five weeks. Clinton supporters read just one false story over five weeks.
They're still measuring the degree to which fake news impacted the 2016 election, however, this study only measured how often stories were read, not whether they were believed or spread. Many of the false stories were outright absurd claims such as claiming Clinton moved $1.8 billion to a Qatar Central Bank or an article headlined “Video Showing Bill Clinton With a 13-Year-Old Plunges Race Into Chaos.”
“For all the hype about fake news, it’s important to recognize that it reached only a subset of Americans, and most of the ones it was reaching already were intense partisans,” Nyhan said. However, he said that they were also consumers of actual news. The ratio of false information to factual information yielded higher reads for true information, which makes sense given the amount of available information from accurate news sites over false news sites.
The organic reach of real news sites on social media also lends itself to reaching more people. Given false news sites don't have access to the audience that sites like the New York Times or Washington Post have, false news would require paid advertising to reach an equal audience. One Russian agency spent only $46,000 in Facebook ads.
Those over 60 years old were much more likely to visit a fake news site than younger Americans, the study found. Moderately left-leading people viewed more false news than pro-Clinton fake news sites. Dr. Rand noted an interpretation of that finding was that those particularly susceptible to false information were less educated voters who switched from supporting President Barack Obama to 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016. Such voters made up huge subsets of Trump's supporters in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“You can see where this might have had an impact in some of those close swing states, like Wisconsin,” Rand said. However, such a hypothesis would require interviews with those voters to confirm.
Facebook was the platform that overwhelmingly linked people to false news sites. Facebook has claimed that they have taken major steps to curb the spread of fake news. One thing they've implemented is hiring researchers and journalists to sort through fake news stories being flagged by users. Those staffers then create a report that is sent to Facebook staff. However, the journalists have complained that they have no idea whether those reports actually do anything at all.
In an interview with NPR, a reporter compiling such reports explained they have no way of knowing how many people saw the fake news report compared to the article debunking the fake news.
"Once we submit it to Facebook, they do whatever they do with our material," Eugene Kiely told NPR.
Facebook never tells fact checkers whether their work reaches users. It could be that one to two people see the fact check over the fake news, or it could be one to 100,000. Facebook says it's proprietary information, even to the partners doing fact checking.
Kiely said that it's better than nothing.