Why Fears of Fake News Are Overhyped

Facebook seems to have made changes that mean it is less involved in the spread of fake news. Overall, and for reasons that extend beyond whatever unknown changes Facebook may have made to its algorithm, fake news seems less prevalent now than it was in 2016.

“[T]he role of Facebook in the spread of fake news appears to have changed. In 2016, the site differentially appeared in web traffic just before visits to fake news sites, suggesting it played a key role in enabling the spread of fake news. No such pattern is apparent in the 2018 data. This result, which echoes findings from other studies and holds with an updated set of websites we compiled before the 2018 study, suggests that the platform’s efforts to limit the reach of fake news are having some impact.”

And it turns out that many of the initial conclusions that observers reached about the scope of fake news consumption, and its effects on our politics, were exaggerated or incorrect. Relatively few people consumed this form of content directly during the 2016 campaign, and even fewer did so before the 2018 election. Fake news consumption is concentrated among a narrow subset of Americans with the most conservative news diets. And, most notably, no credible evidence exists that exposure to fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 election.

The fake news panic echoes fears that prior forms of communication would brainwash the public. Just as exaggerated accounts of hysteria over Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast took advantage of doubts about radio, claims about the reach and influence of fake news express people’s broader concerns about social media and the internet.

Many important concerns about online misinformation still remain, including the influence of the fake news audience, the difficulty of countering fake news at scale, the dangers of Facebook’s size, and the threat of YouTube-based radicalization. But none of these questions can be adequately addressed without creating a reality-based debate that puts fake news in context as just one of the many sources of misinformation in our politics. —Medium