‘Fake News’ Audience Among the Heaviest Internet Users, Study Finds

Newswise — A new Northwestern University study has found that consumers of “fake news” spend more time online than the real news audience. The study also found that fake news consumers do not silo themselves in an echo chamber, but instead consume real news as well.

By observing online audience data in the months leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election, the researchers found that the online fake news audience comprises a small disloyal group of heavy Internet users, while the real news audience commands a majority of the total Internet audience.

“In light of our findings, we argue that the current news crisis may be less about an abundance of fake news than a lack of trust when it comes to real news,” said Jacob Nelson, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Communication’s Media, Technology and Society and the lead author of the study. 

With Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress this week in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, questions about how to safeguard elections and democracy from the corrosive influence of fake news are paramount.

While other studies have established that the fake news audience is smaller than many assumed, Nelson and his co-author, Harsh Taneja of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, are the first to provide a theoretical explanation for why that is the case.

The data indicate that social network sites play an outsized role in generating traffic to fake news. In addition, a heavy Facebook user is far more likely to encounter fake news than a lighter Facebook user.

“While some might find these results to be a welcome relief, we argue it's actually more disturbing that it is the heavy Internet users who appear to be the ones consuming the bulk of fake news, since it suggests that real news is failing to function as a corrective for the misperceptions perpetuated by fake news,” Nelson said.

“We conclude that the current crisis facing political journalism is not how to deal with fake news but instead how to persuade audiences that real news is more credible -- even when it tells them things that run counter to how they would like the world to be.”

Key Findings:

  • The fake news audience comprised visitors who, in general, spent more than twice the time online as the real news audience.
  • The audience size for an average real news sites was about 28 million unique visitors, while the audience size for an average fake news site was about 675,000.
  • Online audiences spent about 9 minutes per month with an average real news site, while they only spent about half of that with an average fake news site.
  • Visits to fake news sites originated from Facebook at much higher rate than visits to real news sites.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the fake news audience also exposes itself to real news.

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