HANOVER, N. H. — The year 2015 feels like a lifetime ago for many Americans. It’s hard to even imagine now, but the term “fake news” wasn’t a phrase all that many people were even aware of, let alone using or hearing about on a daily basis just five short years ago. The 2016 U.S. presidential election changed all that, though, and ever since politics have been a polarizing struggle in the United States. But are all the headlines about fake news playing a role in the election really just much ado about nothing?
Regardless of one’s own political beliefs, there’s no getting around the fact that Donald Trump’s victory was a shock to millions that Wednesday morning in 2016. Many believe to this day that calculated and nefarious misinformation campaigns across online outlets and social media platforms greatly contributed to the outcome. Now, researchers from Dartmouth University have come to a conclusion sure to surprise more than a few: fake news didn’t play all that much of a role in the 2016 election.
The team at Dartmouth, in collaboration with researchers from Princeton University and the University of Exeter, tracked visits to untrustworthy and dubious “news” websites during the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the election. They found that less than half of all Americans visited any of these websites during that time period. Furthermore, only 6% of Americans are estimated to have been regularly visiting such sources in 2016.
An online survey of of 2,525 Americans, as well as internet traffic data collected between October seventh and November 16th that year from the survey respondents’ computers, were used for the research.
There were some noticeable differences regarding how much fake news conservatives and liberals appeared to read. While questionable and often times blatantly false content from conservative sites accounted for almost 5% of respondents’ news diets, fake news sources considered liberal made up less than 1%. Similarly, respondents who identified themselves as a Trump supporter were much more likely to visit a questionable news website (57%) in comparison to self-identified Clinton supporters (28%).
Facebook is often pointed to as ground zero when it comes the spread of misinformation, and this study backed up that notion. Mark Zuckerberg’s social media platform was found to be the biggest gateway to fake news leading up to the election. Study participants were more likely to have logged on to Facebook than Twitter, Google, or Gmail immediately before visiting a questionable news site.
“These findings show why we need to measure exposure to ‘fake news’ rather than just assuming it is ubiquitous online,” says Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth, in a release. “Online misinformation is a serious problem, but one that we can only address appropriately if we know the magnitude of the problem.”
Another interesting finding was that fact-checking websites don’t seem to be very effective at swaying the opinions of people reading these untrustworthy sources. In all, only 44% of respondents who had visited a fake news source also took the time to browse a fact-checking source. Also, virtually none of them had visited a specific fact-checking article regarding a subject they had read about on a fake news website.
The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour.