A website called itself “WTO5 News” posted the headline “Pope Francis shocks the world, endorses Donald Trump as president” in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Pope Francis never endorsed such a tale, but that didn’t prevent the story from being shared, enjoyed, or commented on almost 1 million occasions on social media. Another site, the “Denver Guardian,” published a post on the day before the election entitled “FBI officer suspected in Hillary email leaks discovered dead in apparent killing suicide.” Social media users have involved more than half a million times in that tale in some manner.
The outcome was affected by the incidence of such “fake news” on social networks like Facebook and Twitter after the election, many specialists worried. Now, research of more than 16,000 Twitter users finds only a small fraction distributed and saw most misinformation, typically elderly and politically conservative. The writers claim that fake news during the election may have been less widespread on social media than usually thought.
“If false social media news undermines the capacity of the public to tell apart reality and fiction, then we need to do something about it,” states Yochai Benkler, a Harvard University law professor and social scientist not engaged in the research. “But it is critical that we diagnose the issue properly.”
David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, and his peers reviewed tweets from 16,442 registered electors who also had Twitter accounts during the 2016 election to explore the spread of misinformation on social media. The sample demographics matched those discovered by the scientists of a 2016 Pew Research Centre study of U.S. electors using Twitter.
One of the study’s most common sources of misinformation is a site called “The Gateway Pundit,” which released fake titles including: “Anti-Trump Protesters Bused Into Austin, Chicago” and “Has a woman said the Washington Post offered her $1,000 in sexual abuse to Accuse Roy Moore?
“If a site constantly publishes and does not correct incorrect data, precise news reporting is not really its objective,” claims Lazer.
Just 0.1 percent of the more than 16,000 customers shared more than 80 percent of the fake news produced by such locations, and 80 percent of the fake news appeared in databases from just 1.1 percent of consumers, Lazer and his colleagues report in Science today. The team also found that older Twitter users who were more politically conservative were more likely to view and spread misinformation.
The study comes on the heels of another article that has come to comparable findings of Facebook spreading fake news. The lead author of that study, Joshua Tucker, a political scientist at New York University in New York City, says the two studies when combined together drastically suggest that most Americans don’t share false news or are subjected to it on social media.