Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
Stock photo of a gloriously bearded man reading a newspaper that is on fire.

Partisan misinformation online is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, at least in part. On the one hand, there’s the offerings, partly from politically motivated websites indistinguishable from propaganda, but also from some simply trying to make money by getting clicks with fake headlines. But there’s also the question to consider — those folks who surf voraciously to satisfy their hunger for biased outrage. To understand the magnitude of the problem, it helps to look at both sides of this relationship. What misinformation is circulating, and who is consuming it?

In a new study, Andy GuessBrendan Nyhanand Jason Reifler benefited from survey data tracking the web histories of approximately 2,500 people in the month before the 2016 US election. Combined with some demographic survey data on things like their favorite presidential candidate, the researchers were able to break down who read which articles.

Who publishes what?

The researchers relied on a previous study’s list of “untrustworthy” sites. This included several hundred that could reasonably be described as fake, as well as over a hundred that contradicted fact-checkers and were determined to miss editorial standards. Among that list are conspiracy-spreading sites like InfoWars and Natural News, hyper-partisan sites like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, and even some tabloid magazines like The Express.

Overall, nearly half of the participants visited at least one article from a website on that list during the study period. But those articles accounted for only 6 percent of all news stories read. However, these numbers were not evenly distributed across the political spectrum. About 57 percent of Trump supporters in the group have visited an untrustworthy site at least once, representing about 11 percent of total news consumption. For the Clinton supporters in the group, 28 percent of people who viewed at least one article accounted for 1 percent of their total news consumption.

And when we dig deeper into the data, a relatively small group of people are responsible for most visits to untrustworthy sites. The researchers categorized people based on the ideological leanings of their “news diet,” from those whose reading is dominated by liberal sites to those who read only conservative sites. The 20 percent of people furthest on the conservative end of the spectrum accounted for nearly two-thirds of the unreliable articles read.

A diversity of sources

But even in that group, misinformation junk food didn’t necessarily dominate the diet. It accounted for about 20 percent of their news intake. That’s partly because the people who read the most news articles from more reputable sites — the most voracious news consumers — were also most likely to come across at least one dodgy article.

On the left, the proportion of people who visited at least one dodgy article, broken down by how liberal or conservative their general media diet was.  On the right, the number of unreliable articles in their media diet.
enlarge On the left, the proportion of people who visited at least one dodgy article, broken down by how liberal or conservative their general media diet was. On the right, the number of unreliable articles in their media diet.

The next obvious question is whether people find these dodgy sites through Facebook or some other platform. The study was only able to assess this in a somewhat cumbersome way, checking whether something like Facebook, Twitter, Google or web-based email appears in the browser history right before the URL in question. Unsurprisingly, Facebook showed up the most, about 15 percent of the time. Webmail came in second with 10 percent, while Google and Twitter were below 5 percent.

The researchers also searched for fact-check articles in that browsing history and found that about a quarter of people visited at least one. That number includes about half of those who visited dodgy articles, meaning they were Lake probably than a general reader to check their facts. At least some of their facts. Of the 111 people who read an article from a list that the researchers knew had been fact-checked, only three had the corresponding check facts.

The researchers say this provides more evidence that fact checks usually haven’t reached the people who need them most. It’s worth noting, however, that this data predates much of the efforts by platforms like Facebook to emphasize fact-checking for users who interact with an article that has been judged to be false.

Overall, the researchers conclude that “widespread speculation about the prevalence of exposure to untrustworthy websites has been exaggerated.” Of course, not everything is captured in their dataset, such as content viewed purely within Facebook, or the effects of misinformation on the wider information ecosystem. But it’s a unique study that supports what others have found: A relatively small portion of the public consumes much of what the researchers call “actually questionable content.”

Nature Human Behavior, 2020. DOI: 10.1038/s41562-020-0833-x (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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