Fake news and false news matters in terms of affecting public opinion, albeit no in a good way. Such news, which is either not well-researched, based in facts and without expert commentary, or which contains made up statistics, is becoming more prevalent. Take, for example, a crime story hoax about a woman’s extreme reaction to winning the lottery. This story, which was not correct, was engaged with on Facebook almost 1.77 million times.
In terms of impact, the recent case of 13 Russians in the U.S. operation of a “troll farm”, looking into the spread false information during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has brought the power of “fake news” to the center given its ability to influence public opinion. A Stanford University study reveals that false news influenced how a sizable proportion of U.S. citizens voted during the election. The study concludes: “the average US adult read and remembered on the order of one or perhaps several fake news articles during the election period, with higher exposure to pro-Trump articles than pro-Clinton articles.” However, the study makes no claim as to whether this was sufficient to turn the result.
TechCrunch recently ran an article placing the blame for false news in the hands of social media, stating “failing to be pro-active about the existential threat posed by digitally accelerated disinformation.” To asses how easily false news spreads, Indiana University have looked into false news trending on Twitter and Facebook,. most of it driven by automated bots.
The research reveals that the typical U.S. citizen will have encountered one to three fake news stories in the month before the 2016 U.S. election, simply through average social media use. According to lead researcher Professor Filippo Menczer, there is not just a call for social media giants to take more responsibility but also a need to educate the public to think more critically when consuming news. This can begin at high school, with courses run to enable students recognize illegitimate new sources.
The findings into the spread of false news have been published in the journal Science, in a paper titled “The spread of true and false news online.”