Ul­tra con­ser­va­tives, older peo­ple more likely to share fake news: study

Times Colonist - - Life - SETH BOREN­STEIN

WASH­ING­TON — Peo­ple over 65 and ul­tra con­ser­va­tives shared about seven times more fake in­for­ma­tion mas­querad­ing as news on Face­book than younger adults, mod­er­ates and super lib­er­als dur­ing the 2016 U.S. elec­tion sea­son, a new study says.

The first ma­jor study to look at who is shar­ing links from de­bunked sites finds that not many peo­ple are do­ing it. On av­er­age, only 8.5 per cent of those stud­ied — about one per­son out of 12 — shared false in­for­ma­tion dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to the study pub­lished this week in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vances. But those do­ing it tend to be older and more con­ser­va­tive.

“For some­thing to be vi­ral, you’ve got to know who shares it,” said study coau­thor Jonathan Na­gler, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor and co-di­rec­tor of the So­cial Me­dia and Po­lit­i­cal Par­tic­i­pa­tion Lab at New York Univer­sity. “Wow, old peo­ple are much more likely than young peo­ple to do this.”

Face­book and other so­cial-me­dia com­pa­nies were caught off guard in 2016 when Rus­sian agents ex­ploited their plat­forms to med­dle with the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion by spread­ing fake news, im­per­son­at­ing Amer­i­cans and running tar­geted ad­ver­tise­ments to try to sway votes. Since then, the com­pa­nies have thrown mil­lions of dol­lars and thou­sands of peo­ple into fight­ing false in­for­ma­tion.

Re­searchers at Prince­ton Univer­sity and NYU in 2016 in­ter­viewed 2,711 peo­ple who used Face­book. Of those, nearly half agreed to share all their post­ings with the pro­fes­sors.

The re­searchers used three lists of false-in­for­ma­tion sites — one com­piled by Buz­zFeed and two oth­ers from aca­demic re­search teams — and counted how of­ten peo­ple shared from those sites. Then to dou­ble check, they looked at 897 ar­ti­cles found to be false by fact check­ers and saw how of­ten those were spread. All those lists showed sim­i­lar trends. When other de­mo­graphic fac­tors and over­all post­ing ten­den­cies are taken into ac­count, the av­er­age per­son older than 65 shared seven times more false in­for­ma­tion than those be­tween 18 and 29.

The se­niors shared more than twice as many fake sto­ries as peo­ple be­tween 45 and 64 and more than three times those of peo­ple in the 30- to 44-year-old range, said lead study au­thor An­drew Guess, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton.

The sim­plest the­ory for why older peo­ple share more false in­for­ma­tion is a lack of “dig­i­tal lit­er­acy,” said study co-au­thor Joshua Tucker, who is co-di­rec­tor of the NYU so­cial me­dia po­lit­i­cal lab.

Se­nior ci­ti­zens might not be able to tell truth from lies on so­cial net­works as eas­ily as oth­ers, the re­searchers said.

Har­vard pub­lic pol­icy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sor Matthew Baum, who was not part of the study but praised it, said he thinks shar­ing false in­for­ma­tion is “less about be­liefs in the facts of a story than about sig­nalling one’s par­ti­san iden­tity.” That’s why ef­forts to cor­rect fak­ery don’t re­ally change at­ti­tudes and one rea­son why few peo­ple share false in­for­ma­tion, he said.

When other de­mo­graph­ics and post­ing prac­tices are fac­tored in, peo­ple who called them­selves very con­ser­va­tive shared the most false in­for­ma­tion, a bit more than those who iden­tify them­selves as con­ser­va­tive. The very con­ser­va­tives shared mis­in­for­ma­tion 6.8 times more of­ten than the very lib­er­als, and 6.7 times more than mod­er­ates. Peo­ple who called them­selves lib­er­als es­sen­tially shared no fake sto­ries, Guess said.

Na­gler said he was not sur­prised that con­ser­va­tives in 2016 shared more fake in­for­ma­tion, but he and his col­leagues said that does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that con­ser­va­tives are more gullible when it comes to false sto­ries. It could simply re­flect the fact that there was much more pro-Trump and anti-Clin­ton false in­for­ma­tion in cir­cu­la­tion in 2016, they said.

How­ever, Baum said in an email that con­ser­va­tives post more false in­for­ma­tion be­cause they tend to be more ex­treme, with less ide­o­log­i­cal vari­a­tion than their lib­eral coun­ter­parts and they take their lead from U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who “ad­vo­cates, sup­ports, shares and pro­duces fake news/mis­in­for­ma­tion on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.”

The re­searchers looked at dif­fer­ences in gen­der, race and in­come, but could not find any sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in shar­ing of false in­for­ma­tion.

Af­ter much crit­i­cism, Face­book made changes to fight false in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing de-em­pha­siz­ing proven false sto­ries in peo­ple’s feeds so oth­ers are less likely to see them. It seems to be work­ing, Guess said. Face­book of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment.

“I think if we were to run this study again, we might not get the same re­sults,” Guess said.

MIT’s Deb Roy, a for­mer Twit­ter chief me­dia sci­en­tist, said the prob­lem is that the Amer­i­can news diet is “full of balka­nized nar­ra­tives,” with peo­ple seek­ing in­for­ma­tion that they agree with and call­ing true news that they don’t agree with fake. “What a mess,” Roy said.

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