What do we learn from a new Study on the consumption of Fake News?

A formal study entitled “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign” has been published this month. Just to be totally clear here, the term is a reference to misinformation – news that is presented as true, but is instead partially or wholly false, and so it is not being used to describe wholly accurate news that is not liked, which is how Trump and his supporters use the term.

One of the authors has tweeted out a quick summary …

… and those key findings are perhaps not exactly a surprise

Well OK, that tweet is a tad brief, so let’s dig into it in a bit more detail.

What questions are they asking?

In essence this is what is being explored …

  1. Do people differentially consume false information that reinforces their political views? – (theories of selective exposure predict this, but is it correct?)
  2. To what extent has social media usage exacerbated tendencies toward selective exposure to misinformation?
  3. Did fact-checking  effectively reach consumers of fake news during the 2016 election? (Were those that consumed the fact-checking  the same people who first consumed the fake news?)

Why ask such questions?

Basically because, until now, little was known scientifically about the consumption of fraudulent news, including who read it, the mechanisms by which it was disseminated, and the extent to which fact-checks reached misinformation consumers.

What did did they use to explore these questions?

They combined responses to an online public opinion survey from a national sample of 2,525 Americans with web traffic data collected passively from their computers (with their consent) during the October 7–November 14, 2016 period.

I can only wonder if they also measured a lot of visits to Pornhub.

Key Findings

Basically this …

Fake News Consumption

  • 27.4% of Americans age 18 or older visited an article on a pro-Trump or pro-Clinton fake news website during the study period, which covered the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign
    • Translation – 27% of the voting age population in the United States is more than 65 million people
  • Articles on pro-Trump or pro-Clinton fake news websites represented an average of approximately 2.6% of all the articles Americans read on sites focusing on hard news topics during this period
  • The pro-Trump or pro-Clinton fake news that people read was heavily skewed toward Donald Trump
    • people saw an average of 5.45 articles from fake news websites during the study period of October 7–November 14, 2016, and nearly all of these were pro-Trump.

… but this next discovery perhaps explains why Trump supporters are so disconnected from reality …

  • the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets consumed an average of 33.16 articles from pro-Trump fake news websites

Selective exposure

They focused specifically in this study on respondents who reported supporting Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (that was about 76% of their sample). This was  because their focus was on selective exposure by candidate preference.

What falls out of this quite naturally was not exactly a shock …

  • People who supported Trump were far more likely to visit fake news websites — especially those that are pro-Trump — than Clinton supporters. Among Trump supporters, 40% read at least one article from a pro-Trump fake news website
  • Consumption of articles from pro-Clinton fake news websites was much lower
  • The differences by candidate preference that they observed in fake news website visits was even more pronounced when expressed in terms of the composition of the overall news diets of each group. Articles on fake news websites represented an average of 6.2% of the pages visited on sites that focused on news topics among Trump supporters versus 0.8% among Clinton supporters.

Interestingly enough, age also played a role here …

  • Older Americans (age 60 and older) were also much more likely to visit fake news

… and this next bit did actually surprise me …

  • visits to fake news websites was highest among people who consume the most hard news

Gateways to fake news website

They basically point the finger directly at Facebook …

  • a dramatic association between Facebook usage and fake news website visits, especially for pro-Trump fake news

To be clear … not twitter, not emails, and not just social media in general, but very specifically Facebook.

Fact Checking

They found that positive views of fact-checking was less common among fake news consumers, especially those who support Trump.

To put that another way; fact-check and fake news website visits were quite disjoint in practice, and so while the information is out there, those that need it the most are not finding it.

Measuring Web Traffic – odd exclusions

There is a side observation here. If you are going to analyse web traffic to measure visits to fake news sites, then you need to construct a list of fake news websites.

How did they do that?

They constructed a list that consisted of sites that had no regard for journalistic norms or practices. Most were created to generate profits and not designed to actually persuade anybody of anything.

Interestingly enough, sites that did not make their list include the rather obvious ones such as Infowars, Breitbart, and also Fox News.  To be honest, if I was making a “fake news” list then these would easily make the cut.

What is truly fascinating here is that even when those were excluded and only the most blatant click-bait gibberish is deemed to be fake-news, the statistics still reveal Trump supporters are avid consumers of it all. Filtering out InfoWars, Breitbart, and Fox News changed nothing.

In Summary …

So the takeaway from all of it is this …

  • Fake news website production and consumption was overwhelmingly pro-Trump in its orientation.
  • A narrow subset of Americans with the most conservative information diets were disproportionately likely to visit fake news websites
  • Facebook played a key role in directing people to fake news websites
  • Fact-checking failed to effectively counter fake news – consumption of fact-checks concentrated among non-fake news consumers

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