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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.67 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Data files necessary to replicate the results in this article are available at the following Dataverse repository: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/YLW1AZ.
R/Stata scripts that replicate the results in this article are available at the following Dataverse repository: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/YLW1AZ.
Silverman, C. This analysis shows how fake election news stories outperformed real news on Facebook. BuzzFeed News https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/viral-fake-election-news-outperformed-real-news-on-facebook (2016).
Silverman, C. & Singer-Vine, J. Most Americans who see fake news believe it, new survey says. BuzzFeed News https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/fake-news-survey (2016).
Allcott, H. & Gentzkow, M. Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. J. Econ. Perspect 31, 211–236 (2017).
Parkinson, H. J. Click and elect: how fake news helped Donald Trump win a real election. The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/14/fake-news-donald-trump-election-alt-right-social-media-tech-companies (14 November 2016).
Solon, O. Facebook’s failure: did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected? The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/nov/10/facebook-fake-news-election-conspiracy-theories (10 November 2016).
Blake, A. A new study suggests fake news might have won Donald Trump the 2016 election. Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/04/03/a-new-study-suggests-fake-news-might-have-won-donald-trump-the-2016-election (3 April 2018).
Gunther, R., Beck, P. A. & Nisbet, E. C. ‘Fake news’ and the defection of 2012 Obama voters in the 2016 presidential election. Elect. Stud. 61, 102030 (2019).
Nelson, J. L. & Taneja, H. The small, disloyal fake news audience: the role of audience availability in fake news consumption. New Media Soc. 20, 3720–3737 (2018).
Fourney, A., Racz, M. Z., Ranade, G., Mobius, M. & Horvitz, E. Geographic and temporal trends in fake news consumption during the 2016 US presidential election. In Proc. 2017 ACM on Conference on Information and Knowledge Management 2071–2074 (Association for Computing Machinery, 2017).
Sunstein, C. R. Republic.com (Princeton Univ. Press, 2001).
Pariser, E. The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web is Changing What We Read and How We Think (Penguin, 2011).
Stroud, N. J. Media use and political predispositions: revisiting the concept of selective exposure. Polit. Behav. 30, 341–366 (2008).
Hart, W. et al. Feeling validated versus being correct: a meta-analysis of selective exposure to information. Psychol. Bull. 135, 555–588 (2009).
Iyengar, S. & Hahn, K. S. Red media, blue media: evidence of ideological selectivity in media use. J. Commun. 59, 19–39 (2009).
Iyengar, S., Hahn, K. S., Krosnick, J. A. & Walker, J. Selective exposure to campaign communication: the role of anticipated agreement and issue public membership. J. Polit. 70, 186–200 (2008).
Gentzkow, M. & Shapiro, J. M. Ideological segregation online and offline. Quarterly J. Econ. 126, 1799–1839 (2011).
Barberá, P., Jost, J. T., Nagler, J., Tucker, J. A. & Bonneau, R. Tweeting from left to right: is online political communication more than an echo chamber? Psychol. Sci. 26, 1531–1542 (2015).
Flaxman, S. R., Goel, S. & Rao, J. M. Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption. Public Opin. Quart. 80, 298–320 (2016).
Swire, B. & Ecker, U. K. in Misinformation and Mass Audiences (eds Southwell, B. G. et al.) 195–211 (Univ. Texas Press, 2018).
Vosoughi, S., Roy, D. & Aral, S. The spread of true and false news online. Science 359, 1146–1151 (2018).
Bakshy, E., Messing, S. & Adamic, L. A. Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on facebook. Science 348, 1130–1132 (2015).
Helmsley, J. in Misinformation and Mass Audiences (eds Southwell, B. G. et al.) 263–273 (Univ. Texas Press, 2018).
Gottfried, J. A., Hardy, B. W., Winneg, K. M. & Jamieson, K. H. Did fact checking matter in the 2012 presidential campaign? Am. Behav. Sci. 57, 1558–1567 (2013).
Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions. Polit. Behav. 32, 303–330 (2010).
Flynn, D., Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. The nature and origins of misperceptions: understanding false and unsupported beliefs about politics. Adv. Polit. Psychol. 38, 127–150 (2017).
Chan, M. S., Jones, C. R., Hall Jamieson, K. & Albarracin, D. Debunking: a meta-analysis of the psychological efficacy of messages countering misinformation. Psychol. Sci. 28, 1531–1546 (2017).
Walter, N. & Murphy, S. T. How to unring the bell: a meta-analytic approach to correction of misinformation. Commun. Monogr. 85, 423–441 (2018).
Walter, N., Cohen, J., Holbert, R. L. & Morag, Y. Fact-checking: a meta-analysis of what works and for whom. Polit. Commun. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2019.1668894 (2019).
Shin, J. & Thorson, K. Partisan selective sharing: the biased diffusion of fact-checking messages on social media. J. Commun. 67, 233–255 (2017).
Weeks, B. E. Emotions, partisanship, and misperceptions: how anger and anxiety moderate the effect of partisan bias on susceptibility to political misinformation. J. Commun. 65, 699–719 (2015).
Prior, M. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Diddi, A. & LaRose, R. Getting hooked on news: uses and gratifications and the formation of news habits among college students in an internet environment. J. Broadcast. Electron. Media 50, 193–210 (2006).
Kalla, J. L. & Broockman, D. E. The minimal persuasive effects of campaign contact in general elections: evidence from 49 field experiments. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 112, 148–166 (2018).
Spenkuch, J. L. & Toniatti, D. Political advertising and election results. Q. J. Econ. 133, 1981–2036 (2018).
Grinberg, N., Joseph, K., Friedland, L., Swire-Thompson, B. & Lazer, D. Fake news on twitter during the 2016 US presidential election. Science 363, 374–378 (2019).
Pennycook, G. & Rand, D. G. Lazy, not biased: susceptibility to partisan fake news is better explained by lack of reasoning than by motivated reasoning. Cognition 188, 39–50 (2018).
Frederick, S. Cognitive reflection and decision making. J. Econ. Perspect. 19, 25–42 (2005).
Bacevich, A. J. The real news we ignore at our peril. The American Conservative (11 January 2018).
Van den Putte, B., Yzer, M., Southwell, B. G., de Bruijn, G.-J. & Willemsen, M. C. Interpersonal communication as an indirect pathway for the effect of antismoking media content on smoking cessation. J. Health Commun. 16, 470–485 (2011).
Southwell, B. G. & Thorson, E. A. The prevalence, consequence, and remedy of misinformation in mass media systems. J. Commun. 65, 589–595 (2015).
Guess, A., Nagler, J. & Tucker, J. Less than you think: prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on facebook. Sci. Adv. 5, eaau4586 (2019).
Graves, L. Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016).
Uscinski, J. E. & Butler, R. W. The epistemology of fact checking. Crit. Rev. 25, 162–180 (2013).
Lim, C. Checking how fact-checkers check. Res. Polit. 5, 1–7 (2018).
Benkler, Y., Faris, R., Roberts, H. & Zuckerman, E. Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda. Columbia Journalism Review https://www.cjr.org/analysis/breitbart-media-trump-harvard-study.php (2017).
McDonald, M. P. 2016 November General Election Turnout Rates http://www.electproject.org/2016g (United States Election Project, 2016).
Lazer, D. M. et al. The science of fake news. Science 359, 1094–1096 (2018).
Budak, C. What happened? The spread of fake news publisher content during the 2016 US presidential election. In The World Wide Web Conference 139–150 (ACM, 2019).
Guess, A., Lyons, B., Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. Avoiding the Echo Chamber About Echo Chambers: Why Selective Exposure to Like-Minded Political News is Less Prevalent Than You Think https://kf-site-production.s3.amazonaws.com/media_elements/files/000/000/133/original/Topos_KF_White-Paper_Nyhan_V1.pdf (Knight Foundation, 2018).
Angrist, J. D. & Pischke, J.-S. Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist’s Companion (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Aisha Bradshaw.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
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