Researchers Say Fear of ‘Fake News’ Exaggerated, Real Danger Is Censorship, Social Media Users Are More Informed About Politics

It’s become conventional wisdom that “fake news” has been misinforming people. Social media has been blamed for “fake news,” spreading through Facebook and Twitter to hundreds of millions of people. Now, researchers are finding the people who use social media are actually more informed politically than those who don’t.

More than half of the US population who uses social media has been civically active in some way, a far greater number than those that do not use social media. A third of the US population that uses social media has taken part in a group that shares an interest in a cause or issue, again far more than their non-social media using counter parts.

Multiple studies have detailed that social media users are more informed politically than their non-social media using counter parts, and fears of “fake news” are likely being perpetuated by traditional corporate mass media.

Researchers into so called “fake news” found that it only reached a tiny number of people and made up an incredibly small fraction of their news feeds. The groups most inundated by phony information saw a high of only 8%, while the average user was subjected to less than 2%.

In studies coming out the last couple of years, social media use has been shown to be linked to greater levels of depression and less consumption of television. There has not yet been research to conclude if this greater depression of social media users is caused by being more informed about world events via social media. Possible connections between ignorance and bliss are still under review.

In a study published in late 2017, Duncan Watts and David Rothschild argued that the amount and reach of misinformation was unlikely to have had any noticeable impact, and instead of blaming so-called “fake news,” we should “blame the mainstream media.” While Jacob Nelson, a professor at the Arizona State University’s journalism school, argued that fake news was “a fake problem.”

According to Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, fears about the spread and influence of fake news have been over-hyped. Many of the initial conclusions about the scope of the problem and its effect on US politics were exaggeration or just plain misinformation.

So why has this myth persisted despite evidence to the contrary? Nyhan’s theory is that it’s like Orson Welles’s radio play “War of the Worlds.” There is a myth that “War of the Worlds” caused widespread panic among the US population. There was no actual evidence that it caused any panic, but reports of panic spread in newspapers of the day. Why did it spread? Because newspapers needed to discredit radio as a source of news. Much In the same way that corporate mass media is now concerned with social networks. So we hear about fake news being spread by Russian agents on Facebook, but it is actually just the corporate mass media’s concern that their influence is shrinking and the influence of social networks is growing, and martians have yet to strike.



Photo: “Digital Nomad working with a Laptop in a Cafe in Vietnam” by Marco Verch is licensed under CC BY 2.0