People who read fake news online are not doomed to fall into a deep echo chamber where the only sound they hear is their own ideology, according to new research from the Wharton School.
Surprisingly, readers who regularly browse fake news generated by social media algorithms are more likely to diversify their news diet by seeking out the main sources. These diversified news junkies make up over 97% of online readers, compared to a meager 2.8% who exclusively consume fake news online.
“We found that these echo chambers that people worry about are very superficial. The idea that the Internet creates an echo chamber is simply not true,” said Sentil Veeraraghavan, Wharton Professor of Operations, Information and Solutions.
Veeraraghavan is co-author of the article “Do Echo Chambers Create Fake News?” It was also written by Ken Moon, Wharton Professor of Operations, Information and Solutions, and Jiding Zhang, Assistant Professor of Operations Management at NYU Shanghai, who received her PhD from Wharton.
The study, which examined the online activity of nearly 31,000 households in 2017, offers empirical evidence that contradicts popular notions about echo chambers. While echo chambers are certainly dark and dangerous places, they are not metaphorical black holes that suck in every person who reads an article about, say, Obama’s fertility theory or COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies. The study found that households exposed to fake news actually increase their exposure to mainstream news by 9.1%.
“We were surprised, although we were well aware that we did not know much,” Moon said. “One thing we wanted to see was the amount of fake news. How do we figure out what is fake and what is not, and who is producing the fake news and why? The economic structure of this matters from a business standpoint.”
The professors found that most fake news came from a relatively small number of sites, so instead of judging individual articles as true or false based on content, they analyzed the data by source. News sources in the study who were identified as purveyors of false information, including the Occupy Democrats and The Federalist Papers, had about 1 in 1,000 articles that were fact-checked and found to be false. In comparison, major sites including The New York Times and Bloomberg published incorrect information in 3 out of every 100,000 articles.
The data revealed several demographic differences between households that predominantly view mainstream news and the 10% identified as “avid readers” of fake news, meaning they spend more time than average browsing fake news sources while continuing to consume mainstream news. The newspaper notes that avid readers of fake news tend to be slightly older, live in small families and are less likely to have children. “Contrary to popular belief, they are neither poor nor less educated. In fact, their average level of education is somewhat higher.”
Moon and Veeraraghavan said these demographic similarities show the danger of stereotyping people who read fake news. There is no single profile; virtually everyone is at least a casual reader of information that is dubious or outright wrong.
“One interesting thing about the data was that outliers, the people who read the most fake news, also tend to read the most news overall,” Moon said. “These news-loving consumers are looking for all the information available, so they are consuming a significant amount of fake news. But if you’re looking for people who only read fake news, they’re really hard to find.”
“People are complicated,” Viaragavan added. “I think the straw man that has been built about who the consumers of fake news are doesn’t quite add up. That’s one thing the paper is trying to figure out: Who are these consumers?
Blocking readers from echo chambers
The professors give a specific recommendation on how platforms like Facebook can better moderate fake news content: Instead of having general policies designed to protect all users from fake news, target the tiny percentage of households that are most prone to being echoed -cameras.
The recommendation comes from a pattern they found in the data after August 2017, when Facebook began flagging questionable content to discourage users from sharing it. Pages that repeatedly shared false information were also banned from advertising on the platform, prompting them to stop the viral spread of fake news.
The professors analyzed home news consumption before and after politics among Facebook users and other users. Prior to the introduction of the policy, Facebook and non-Facebook users viewed real and fake online news at about the same rate. After the policy, Facebook users consumed less fake news, which was the goal of the policy, but they also consumed significantly less mainstream news compared to users outside the platform.
Full policy is costly and inefficient for social media, and it has the unintended consequence of cutting off legitimate access to news, the professors argue in their paper. Instead, Facebook and other platforms should use their rich consumer data to identify the most vulnerable users through “harm-based interventions” that prevent those people from accessing fake news sources.
Moon and Veeraraghavan acknowledge that this recommendation may not solve all of the problems surrounding fake news, but it is a suggestion that companies and policy makers need to consider in the difficult effort to combat the problem.
“This recommendation comes with a caveat that we must implement it carefully,” Moon said. “There is always the question of what is ethical. Should we really be censoring content for one specific group of people? But if you understand that the problem comes down to the vulnerability of only a few, what guarantees can there be? a way to look at solutions that are ethical or acceptable and evaluate their effectiveness for this vulnerable group.”
Viaragavan noted that fake news will never be eradicated; it’s been around since the beginning of storytelling. From ancient times to yellow journalism, from grocery store tabloids to online fakes, history is littered with examples. The goal, he says, is to find ways to make him less powerful and less dangerous.
“Fake news will always be there,” he said. “You’re not going to eliminate fake news or make people disinterested in it, so we need to understand how fake news is consumed, not judge people for consuming it.”
Research published in Electronic Journal of the SSRN.
Research shows that verified users are among the top culprits in the spread of fake news.
Jiding Zhang et al. Do Echo Chambers Create Fake News?, Electronic Journal of the SSRN (2022). DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.4144897
Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania
Quote: Who gets caught by fake news? (2022, 25 August) retrieved 25 August 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-08-falling-fake-news.html.
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