By Mark Travers
Facebook is by far the worst perpetrator when it comes to spreading fake news. Worse than Google. Worse than Twitter. And worse than webmail providers such as AOL, Yahoo!, and Gmail.
This is according to a new study published in the journal Nature: Human Behavior.
A team of researchers led by Andrew Guess of Princeton University tracked the internet use of over 3000 Americans in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. They found Facebook to be the referrer site for untrustworthy news sources over 15% of the time. By contrast, Facebook referred users to authoritative news sites only 6% of the time.
The authors state, “This pattern of differential Facebook visits immediately prior to untrustworthy website visits is not observed for Google (3.3% untrustworthy news versus 6.2% hard news) or Twitter (1% untrustworthy versus 1.5% hard news).”
The graph below depicts the size of the effect.
How much do fake news websites actually influence people’s political views and voting decisions? This, the authors admit, is harder to estimate — but they believe it has a smaller impact than is widely believed.
For one, they note that changing a voter’s mind is an incredibly difficult feat. By one estimate, only 1-3 people out of every 10,000 change their vote choice in response to seeing a political advertisement on television. Instead, those seeking out fake news via Facebook and other referrer platforms are likely visiting those sites as a way to reaffirm already existing beliefs and opinions.
Moreover, the researchers found that while a significant portion of Americans visited at least one untrustworthy news site during the final weeks of the 2016 election campaign (44.3% to be exact), it did not replace their appetite for hard news. The authors write, “Those who consume the hardest news tend to consume the most information from untrustworthy websites — in other words, they appear to complement, not substitutes.”
That said, the researchers found that Trump supporters were far more likely to visit untrustworthy news sites: approximately 57% of Trump supporters read at least one fake news article in the month prior to the 2016 election compared to only 28% of Clinton supporters. Older Americans were also more likely to visit untrustworthy news websites.
Perhaps most alarming is the observed “stickiness” of fake news websites. The researchers estimate that people spend an average of 64 seconds consuming a fake news articles compared to only 42 seconds on verified news stories.
More research is needed to sort out the degree to which fake news can influence public opinion. Until then, the researchers conclude the following: “Our results about the relationship between untrustworthy website consumption and both voter turnout and vote choice are statistically imprecise; we can only rule out very large effects.”
What is clear, however, is that Facebook was a “key vector of distribution for untrustworthy websites.”
Mark Travers writes about the world of psychology and survey research.