A recent study published in American Behavioral Scientist found that a substantial percent of people had liked a fake news-related Facebook page. While some fake news was political, many of these individuals were exposed through non-political lifestyle pages, emphasizing the need for critical thinking and understanding the potential of large-audience pages to spread misinformation.
Fake news, as the term implies, refers to false or misleading information presented as factual news. It can take many forms, from political hoaxes to sensationalized stories about celebrities. Fake news has the potential to misinform and influence public opinion, making it an issue of concern in today’s digital world.
Previous research has shown that exposure to fake news is not evenly distributed among Facebook users. Certain demographics, such as older individuals and males, have been found to be more likely to encounter fake news content. Additionally, political affiliation and personal interests often play a role in determining the type of content that appears in a user’s news feed.
So, why did the researchers embark on this study? They aimed to uncover the factors that drive people to like Facebook pages associated with fake news sources. By understanding these factors, the research team hoped to gain insights into the mechanisms behind the spread of misinformation and ultimately find ways to combat it.
“I happened to collect a large amount of data from Facebook users during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and later on realized that the data captured an unexplored phenomenon: digital trace data showing whether people liked Facebook pages for ‘Fake News’ websites,” said study author Katherine Haenschen, assistant professor of communication studies and political science at Northeastern University.
“This is an important avenue of potential exposure, since people who like the pages for these sites likely see more misinformation / disinformation in their feeds. I had actual Facebook user data, rather than self reports, which helped me explore this.”
The study involved collecting data from a group of 806 individuals who use Amazon Mechanical Turk, a platform for recruiting participants for research. These participants completed the study between December 29, 2016, and January 2, 2017, providing valuable insights into their Facebook habits.
Researchers gathered data on various factors, including the participants’ age, gender, race, education level, political affiliations, and even their support for specific 2016 presidential candidates. They also assessed participants’ political interest, knowledge, and their level of political participation, both offline and online.
To understand participants’ engagement with fake news, the study focused on the Facebook pages they had liked. This data included the number of pages liked and their specific content. The researchers categorized the pages into different groups, such as news media, political content, and lifestyle content. They also identified which of these pages were associated with fake news.
Among the participants, approximately 18.36% had liked at least one Facebook page associated with a fake news source. This indicates that a significant portion of the participants had some level of exposure to fake news content on the platform.
The researchers identified various types of fake news pages, including those with right-wing, left-wing, and “other” content. Interestingly, self-identified Independents had the highest rate of liking fake news pages, followed by Republicans, Democrats, and other partisans. This suggests that political affiliation played a role in fake news page engagement.
Some of the most popular fake news pages were not explicitly political but were more focused on lifestyle and entertainment content. For instance, pages like “The Mind Unleashed,” “Collective Evolution,” and “David Wolfe” garnered significant likes. These lifestyle-oriented fake news pages accounted for a substantial portion of fake news page engagement.
“While some misinformation exposure came from liking pages dedicated to spreading political falsehoods, plenty of people were exposed to ‘fake news’ through lifestyle pages and other non-political outlets,” Haenschen told PsyPost. “Individuals need to use their critical thinking skills when they see political news, regardless of where it comes from.”
“The role of ‘lifestyle’ or more general interest sites with large followings was something that had not been identified. It’s also important to remember how a page can post links to all sorts of content, including articles published on their own website. The potential for large-audience pages to spread misinformation needs to be better understood.”
The researchers also found that support for specific presidential candidates influenced engagement with fake news content. Supporting Trump was associated with a higher likelihood of liking fake news pages, while supporting Clinton was associated with a lower likelihood of both liking and engaging with fake news. Political interest and participation also played a role in predicting engagement with fake news content.
A fascinating aspect of the study was the analysis of how Facebook pages formed clusters based on shared audience members. The researchers identified clusters containing fake news pages, often with clear partisan biases. They found that right-leaning fake news tended to cluster with local news, while left-leaning fake news clustered with national news.
Looking ahead, future research could delve deeper into the role of lifestyle-oriented pages in the spread of fake news. Moreover, exploring the potential influence of Facebook’s advertising technology on the clustering of fake news pages could provide further insights into the dynamics of misinformation on the platform.
“We still don’t have a great handle on how much passive exposure to ‘fake news’ that people are seeing on sites such as Facebook, whether it’s shared by a friend or posted by a page or group they follow,” Haenschen said. “Self reports aren’t reliable. We need to know if this passive exposure — just skimming past a headline and maybe a sentence or two — impacts what people think is true about current events.”
The study, “Curated Misinformation: Liking Facebook Pages for Fake News Sites“, was authored by Katherine Haenschen, Mia X. Shu, and Jacob A. Gilliland.