Fewer People Clicked on Fake News Sites in 2020 Election

Nijwam Swargiary
Nijwam Swargiary

Do you think you’re good at spotting fake news? Chances are you’re a lot better at it than you were a few years ago—or at least that’s what a new study suggests.

In a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, Stanford University researchers found that users seem to be much better at spotting misinformation on the internet during the time leading up to the 2020 election, than they were four years prior. The amount of people clicking on websites that contained false or misleading information dropped by roughly half between the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

However, the team also noted that a significant amount of Americans still fall prey to misinformation online. While less people are clicking on fake news websites, this might just mean that the landscape of misinformation on the internet has changed.

“Although we saw a serious reduction in the overall number of people exposed to misinformation on the web, misinformation remains a serious problem in the information ecosystem for some populations, especially older adults and diverse communities,” Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford and senior author of the study, said in a statement.

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The new paper was built off of a 2016 study that previously investigated internet misinformation, and found that roughly 44.3 percent of Americans were visiting sites promoting fake and untrustworthy news.

For the 2020 study, the authors recruited 1,151 American adults and had them install a browser plugin that tracked their web activity between Oct. 2, 2020 and Nov. 9, 2020. They gathered roughly 7.5 million website visits across the participants’ desktop and mobile devices and cross checked them with a list of 1,730 websites and domains that had been identified as unreliable and untrustworthy.

In the end, they found that 26.2 percent of users visited fake news websites—a nearly 50 percent drop from 2016.. While the drop is notable, the authors estimated that nearly 68 million Americans made a total of 1.5 billion visits to misinformation sites during the run up to the 2020 election—far from an insignificant number.

In other words, efforts to combat misinformation may have reduced the amount of fake election news being circulated, but it still remains a big problem in the age of the internet.

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The Stanford researchers found that visitors to these sites were typically older, whiter, and more conservative, which was consistent with the 2016 research. In fact, older adults were twice as likely to visit misinformation sites when compared to those 18 to 29 years old. “Older adults continue to be targeted by misinformation purveyors because that generation tends to be wealthier and more civically engaged than other generations, making them prime targets for bad actors trying to make money or change election outcomes,” Hancock explained.

The authors also found that there was a big drop in the number of clicks on misinformation websites from Facebook, with 5.6 percent of visits being referred to by the social media giant in 2020 and 15.1 percent in 2016. This shows that misinformation mitigation efforts by the platform like content moderation seemed to have a bigger impact on users.

“The drop in visits referred by Facebook may reflect investment in trust and safety efforts to decrease the prevalence of misinformation on their platform, such as flagging, content moderation, and user education, which they and other platforms weren’t doing as much of in 2016,” Ryan Moore, a digital media researcher at Stanford and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

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However, the authors note that—while the results are encouraging—the downward trend could also indicate that the nature of misinformation online is changing. Not everyone is getting fake news from websites and Facebook. With the rise of new social media sites like TikTok and Twitch and the proliferation of encrypted services like WhatsApp and Signal, fake news becomes harder to track and mitigate. Even studies like this one only capture a small snapshot of a much larger problem.

As we enter yet another endless election cycle in 2024, it’s more important than ever that everyone from lawmakers, to Big Tech giants, to every day internet users become more cognizant than ever of the different ways that misinformation can take and evolve online.

Fake news is about as old as news itself, so there’s not going to be a single panacea for it all. But with a little bit of effort, we can make sure that folks are more informed about the things they see—and believe—online.

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