‘Facebook is the central conduit for the transfer of fake news,’ study concludes


New research shows that ideologically extreme users spread the most misinformation on the social media giant.


BOULDER, Colo. — Facebook stands above the rest as the top source for fake news on social media, researchers say. But how exactly did things get so bad for Mark Zuckerberg’s social network? A new study out of the University of Boulder, Colorado investigates misinformation on Facebook, as well as Twitter. It reveals that the vast majority of misleading posts come from accounts on the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

The study also notes that people who are generally wary of the mainstream media are much more likely to share fake news or misleading information on Facebook.

“We found that certain types of people are disproportionally responsible for sharing the false, misleading, and hyper-partisan information on social media,” says lead author Toby Hopp, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design, in a release. “If we can identify those types of users, maybe we can get a better grasp of why people do this and design interventions to stem the transfer of this harmful information.”

Fake news and polarizing content that do nothing more than inflame political tensions and pit Americans against one another remain a big problem across all social media platforms. Still, the problem of fake news on Facebook feels like it’s reaching a fever pitch in 2020.

“A decade or two ago, traditional news organizations played a key gatekeeping role in determining what was true or not true,” Hopp explains. “Now, with the proliferation of social media and with traditional news organizations under financial distress, there is a sea of change occurring in the way that information flows through society.”

Vast majority of users don’t share fake news

Prior studies already conclude that older, conservative-leaning adults are the most likely demographic to share fake news on Facebook, but the study’s authors wanted to conduct a more comprehensive investigation.

“We wanted to look at more nuanced factors indicating how these people see the world around them,” Hopp comments.

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So, a total of 783 regular Facebook and Twitter users, all over the age of 18, were gathered for this research. Each person consented to having their social media posts between August 1, 2015, and June 6, 2017 collected and analyzed. This time period was specifically chosen because it encompasses before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Participants also filled out an extensive survey gauging their political beliefs, as well as how much they trust their friends, family, community, and the mainstream media.

While analyzing participants’ posts, researchers searched for profiles sharing content from 106 websites known to publish and spread fake news.

On a positive note, the study shows that the majority of accounts (71% Facebook users, 95% Twitter users) never share anything close to misinformation. Still, though, that left 1,152 Facebook posts containing fake news. In fact, one Facebook user’s profile alone was responsible for 171 different misleading posts.

In comparison, only 128 posts containing misleading or fake information were detected across all analyzed Twitter posts.

“We found that Facebook is the central conduit for the transfer of fake news,” Hopp says.

Which side of the spectrum shares the most fake news?

Study participants who describe themselves as super conservative account for about 26% of the fake news on Facebook, and 32% of the misinformation on Twitter. However, participants who classify themselves as very liberal also share a significant amount of misleading articles (17.5% of fake news on Facebook, and 16.4% on Twitter).

“It is not just Republicans or just Democrats, but rather, people who are—left or right—more ideologically extreme,” Hopp notes.

On the other hand, people with more moderate political views, and those who generally trust the media, are much less likely to share fake news.

“We can disagree, but when we have fundamentally different views about what information is true and what is not, democracy becomes very difficult to maintain,” Hopp concludes.

The study is published in Human Communication Research. 

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