By Annika Bess 01/02/2019

“Fake news.” Trump drawled during the led up to the 2016 election. You’re probably tired of hearing the phrase, yet he was right; fake news is a concerning issue, but who is its audience?

The 2016 US presidential election was fraught with cries of ‘fake news’. As the term was used from almost all political leanings, the question remains: who was consuming the most fake news? A study published in Science aimed to find out by looking at how many fake stories were seen and shared on Twitter, who interacted with the stories, and how these individuals interact with other media sources. The study used over 16,000 of Twitter accounts linked to public voter registration records.

Voter surveys and web browsing data showed that 27 per cent of people browsed sources that had fake news in the week leading up to the election. The Twitter sample averaged around 204 potentially fake news stories in the month leading up to the election. If people interacted with 5 per cent of the fake news they were exposed to, they would have then interacted with about 10 fake stories and were likely to remember one or more of its sentiments as they made their way to the polling booths, the researchers said.

Reassuringly, the vast majority of Twitter users accessed political news from legitimate news sources. A mere one per cent of the surveyed accounts accounted for 80 per cent of the fake news exposure, and just 0.1 per cent shared nearly 80 per cent of the fake news stories. These fake-news sharers were more like to be conservative, male, white, highly active on Twitter and to live in swing states.

The researchers suggest many ways that could potentially reduce the number of fake news sources floating around online, as well as limiting how much they are shared. This could be done by putting the responsibility of monitoring and tracking news stories on social media platforms. There could also be limitations put on users of social media platforms such as capping shares of political URLS at 20 per day. The researchers tried the capping algorithm and estimated it would reduce fake news shares by about a third. There could also be an increased reliance on social media platforms to establish a close relationship with fact-checking organisations to monitor the sources of fake news, especially given those who do interact with fake news rely on a small number of active sources.

Besides the large onus this would put on the shoulders of social media platforms, as well as some of its regular users, it raises the question of whether fake news should be actively removed. Should the public be expected to make informed decisions and have the ability to fact check the content they see? Would this system work considering confirmation bias may lead people to look only for information that reiterates their belief?

A comforting thought is that, though the levels of interaction with fake news were high, the majority still lies with those who did not interact with fake news. Yet these rates of interaction should be seen by the public as a PSA; so long as fake news is out there, and largely unmonitored, know your sources.