Since the 2016 presidential election, concern has escalated about America's fake news problem. Fake news, defined as false or misleading information masquerading as legitimate news, is everywhere. It litters the internet, social media, radio, newspapers, and television.
But according to new research, fake news is far less pervasive than we think. Analyzing the news diets of hundreds of thousands of people revealed that fake news makes up only a tiny fraction, less than one percent, of Americans’ news consumption.
Even though fake news is statistically extremely rare, experts worry it dictates public opinion about all news.
In a new study, researchers discovered the majority of Americans simply don’t consume much news at all.
When they do engage with the news cycle, they overwhelmingly turn to TV, best known for hour-on-hours of opinion-based talk shows, instead of investigative reporting or fact-based reporting in newspapers and magazines.
Taken together, the research suggests it may be misinformation from mainstream media sources and a lack of information in general that is driving political polarization and shaping public opinion -- not disinformation from dark corners of the web.
David Rothschild, a co-author of the study and economist at Microsoft Research, tells Inverse that the type of fake news that people have been "obsessing about" — such as the clear disinformation campaigns created by foreign governments — is really small. His team published their findings Friday in the journal Science Advances.
"If you really are worried about misinformation or disinformation, you should be looking at various forms of untruthfulness that occurs in the mainstream, where people are consuming."
In the fallout of President Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, Rothschild and his team became interested in misinformation across the media landscape. But based on data at the time, pinning down the scale of the problem proved difficult.
To capture how bad the fake news problem really is, the researchers harnessed data from two sources, spanning 2016 to 2018: Nielsen’s television and desktop web panels and Comscore’s desktop and mobile traffic data.
The Nielsen web panels tracked news consumption on Americans' desktop computers, while the Nielsen TV panels captured people’s local and national television news consumption. They analyzed how many people looked at the evening and cable news, morning shows, entertainment news, and late-night comedy shows. The Nielsen data included over 150,000 Americans and 60,000 households.
ComScore’s data encompasses people’s digital news consumption, both on their computers and mobile devices. The dataset included how people consumed articles published on over 800 websites that cover "hard news" like politics, business, and U.S. and international affairs. They also looked at how much people consumed content from 98 websites identified by researchers, fact-checkers, and journalists as sources of fake, deceptive, low-quality, or hyper-partisan news.
The team also analyzed how often people passively consumed news, or encountered headlines and news snippets on social media and search engines, without intentionally seeking out information.
What's in an American's news diet?
It turns out, the average American spends over 7.5 hours per day consuming media — including watching TV, listening to music, following sports, scrolling social media, or gaming.
Most Americans don’t tune into the news very often. News media makes up only 14.2 percent of the total media Americans consume each day.
"If you're worried about people being ill-informed, a lot of it is because they literally just don't consume that much news at all," Rothschild says.
Of the daily news people do consume, less than one percent or 0.15 percent can be considered deliberately false or misleading, the study says.
While the fake news finding may seem positive at first glance, Rothschild says he is “not comforted.”
Even a small proportion of lies parading as truth can spark radicalization, hatred, bigotry, and widespread distrust. Fake news can be harmful, even in small doses.
Across all the findings, Rothschild is most concerned with the untruths that filter from the dark corners of the internet, or even discussed extemporaneously on YouTube or other platforms, and make their way to mainstream media like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the like. He's also wary of "spin" -- how mammoth media outlets may be inadvertently skewing the stories Americans consume.
“This paper shows that mainstream media, specifically television news, is such a dominant share of news consumption that any concerns over the spread of misinformation should really focus there,” Rothschild says.
This is where Americans pay the most attention. Overall, Americans consume five times as much news on TV than they do online.
Older Americans, in particular, have an enormous preference for TV news rather than online news, with those aged 55 and older watching more than 90 minutes per day. Young people are more likely to go online or consume media on their mobile devices than watch TV.
Many people in the sample were exposed to a substantial amount of daily TV news. Precisely 44 percent of the sample is exposed to no online news at all and almost three quarters spend less than 30 seconds a day reading news online.
It’s time to take a “critical eye” to how the mainstream media is operating — what stories they spotlight, what they leave out, and how they may inadvertently equalize unmatched perspectives, Rothschild argues.
“Once you start thinking about mis- and disinformation in the mainstream media, and you actually put a critical eye to it, you realize it's a big problem. And one that we've been undercounting,” he says.
“If the gold standard is having such issues of getting information out, what should we expect from other news sources?”
The paper should also be a "wakeup call" to researchers everywhere who have had a narrow interest in studying fake news as it travels across the media landscape.
Indeed, since 2017, Google Scholar presents 2,210 publications featuring “fake news” in the title, compared with just 73 in all previous years, the researchers report.
For the past few years, amid a chaotic political sphere, people may have overblown the volume of fake news, the research suggests. But it's critical to note: we don't fully understand how lightning-fast falsehoods can travel, or how they can lead to harmful public sentiments or violence.
Fake news fears aren't unfounded, and they aren't quelling. In light of Covid-19, as people turn to the news for information that can influence their health, making sure news is factual is more important than ever.
To filter through the deluge of content, Rothschild suggests approaching media from an unfamiliar source with skepticism. If you run across an article on social media, plug it into a search engine, and see if fact-based outlets validate the content.
Abstract: “Fake news,” broadly defined as false or misleading information masquerading as legitimate news, is frequently asserted to be pervasive online with serious consequences for democracy. Using a unique multimode dataset that comprises a nationally representative sample of mobile, desktop, and television consumption, we refute this conventional wisdom on three levels. First, news consumption of any sort is heavily outweighed by other forms of media consumption, comprising at most 14.2% of Americans’ daily media diets. Second, to the extent that Americans do consume news, it is overwhelmingly from television, which accounts for roughly five times as much as news consumption as online. Third, fake news comprises only 0.15% of Americans’ daily media diet. Our results suggest that the origins of public misinformedness and polarization are more likely to lie in the content of ordinary news or the avoidance of news altogether as they are in overt fakery.