“Less Than You Think,” Fake News on Facebook in the 2016 Election

“Less Than You Think,” Fake News on Facebook in the 2016 Election

How important was “fake news,” including false social media postings, in the 2016 national elections, and who was sharing the posts? A newly-released study from Princeton and NYU professors indicates that “sharing this content was a relatively rare activity.”

The vast majority of Facebook users in our data did not share any articles from fake news domains in 2016 at all (Fig. 1), and this is not because people generally do not share links. … Sharing of stories from fake news domains is a much rarer event than sharing links overall.

The authors and many observers have focused on the study’s principal conclusion: that older readers shared “fake news” the most. Yet, despite scare quotes about how older people sent more than seven times as many fake news stories as the youngest people, the study shows that 90% of survey respondents didn’t share even one fake news story and only 8.5% shared one. Nevertheless, the authors opine that older people are less likely to have the experience with digital media to distinguish fact from truth. Niraj Chokji, a writer for the New York Times, even speculated that “Another possible explanation is that memory deteriorates with age, potentially undermining the tools people use to discern fact from fiction.” No word on whether the researchers considered the possibility that age also provides a longer experiential line against which to measure claims.

Ageism aside, there is an even greater problem with this focus on age: the researchers did not have access to what the persons who forwarded these articles actually said about the articles — positive, negative or otherwise. Perhaps older people were more prone to send comments like “what a crazy thing to say” about these fake news stories?

Even though it poses some good questions, the study’s authors seem to lean toward demonstrating some need for “interventions” to “reduce the spread of misinformation by those most vulnerable to deceptive content.”

I worry when well-meaning researchers suggest mechanisms to evaluate and moderate the spread of “misinformation.”

 

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