Exposure to untrustworthy websites in the 2016 US election


Although commentators frequently warn about echo chambers, little is known about the volume or slant of political misinformation that people consume online, the effects of social media and fact checking on exposure, or the effects of political misinformation on behaviour. Here, we evaluate these questions for websites that publish factually dubious content, which is often described as fake news. Survey and web-traffic data from the 2016 US presidential campaign show that supporters of Donald Trump were most likely to visit these websites, which often spread through Facebook. However, these websites made up a small share of people’s information diets on average and were largely consumed by a subset of Americans with strong preferences for pro-attitudinal information. These results suggest that the widespread speculation about the prevalence of exposure to untrustworthy websites has been overstated.

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Fig. 1: Selective exposure to untrustworthy websites.
Fig. 2: Visits to untrustworthy websites by media diet slant decile.
Fig. 3: Consumption of untrustworthy conservative websites by CRT score and candidate preference.
Fig. 4: Referrers to untrustworthy news websites and other sources.
Fig. 5: Visits to fact-checking and untrustworthy websites.

Data availability

Data files necessary to replicate the results in this article are available at the following Dataverse repository: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/YLW1AZ.

Code availability

R/Stata scripts that replicate the results in this article are available at the following Dataverse repository: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/YLW1AZ.


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We thank D. Kahan and C. Silverman for sharing data; S. Luks and M. Shih at YouGov for assistance with survey administration; K. Arceneaux, Y. Benkler, D. Ciuk, T. Coan, L. Jasny, D. Kahan, D. Lazer, J. Leahy, T. Leeper, A. S. Levine, B. Lyons, C. Mo, S. Munzert and S. Piston for providing comments and feedback; B. Bao, J. Barancik, A. Cai, J. Davidson, K. Fuhs, J. Burnes Garza, G. Green, J. Lu, A. Ma, H. Parkhurst, S. Petroni, M. Sandhu, P. Sankar, A. Sun, J. Sweetow, A. Wolff and A. Woodruff for research assistance. This project received funding support from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 682758). We are grateful to the Poynter Institute, Knight Foundation and American Press Institute for funding support. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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A.M.G., B.N. and J.R. designed the study, conducted the analysis, and drafted and revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to Brendan Nyhan.

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Guess, A.M., Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. Exposure to untrustworthy websites in the 2016 US election. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0833-x

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