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“We found Facebook was a key vector of distribution for untrustworthy websites during the 2016 Presidential Election, and this may be because of the scale of this website."

Facebook “prominent gateway” to untrustworthy websites during 2016 US presidential election, study shows

Facebook was the most prominent gateway to untrustworthy websites during the 2016 US Presidential election, a new study shows.

People who took part in the research were more likely to have visited Facebook than Google, Twitter or a webmail platform such as Gmail in the period immediately before visiting an untrustworthy website.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, debates have raged about the reach of so-called “fake news” websites and the role they played during the campaign. A study published in Nature Human Behaviour finds that the reach of these untrustworthy websites has been overstated, and they only account for a small portion of news diets.

To assess the audience for “fake news,” researchers at Dartmouth, Princeton and the University of Exeter measured visits to these dubious and unreliable websites during the period before and immediately after the election using an online survey of 2,525 Americans and web traffic data collected by YouGov Pulse (Oct. 7 – Nov. 16, 2016) from respondents’ laptops or desktop computers. This method avoids the problems with asking people to recall which websites they visited, an approach that is plagued with measurement error.

According to the findings, less than half of all Americans visited an untrustworthy website. Moreover, untrustworthy websites accounted for only six percent of all Americans’ news diets on average.

Professor Jason Reifler, from the University of Exeter, co-author of the study, said: “We found Facebook was a key vector of distribution for untrustworthy websites during the 2016 Presidential Election, and this may be because of the scale of this website.

“We found those who consumed the most hard news also consumed the most information from untrustworthy websites. Consumption of news from fake sites was instead heavily concentrated among a small subset of people — 62 per cent of the visits came from the 20 per cent of Americans with the most conservative information diets.”

Visits to dubious news sites differed sharply along ideological and partisan lines. Content from untrustworthy conservative sites accounted for nearly 5 percent of people’s news diets compared to less than 1 percent for untrustworthy liberal sites. Respondents who identified themselves as Trump supporters were also more likely to visit an untrustworthy site (57 percent) than those who indicated that they were Clinton supporters (28 percent).

The study demonstrates that fact-checking websites appeared to be relatively ineffective in reaching the audiences of untrustworthy websites. Only 44 percent of respondents who visited such a website also visited a fact-checking site during the study, and almost none of them had read a fact-check debunking specific claims made in a potentially questionable article.

“These findings show why we need to measure exposure to ‘fake news’ rather than just assuming it is ubiquitous online,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth. “Online misinformation is a serious problem, but one that we can only address appropriately if we know the magnitude of the problem.”

Date: 4 March 2020

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