A new study of the rapid spread and attraction of false news on Facebook has measured the detrimental appeal of sensational and agenda-driven misinformation in drowning out accurate material.
During the 2020 US election, so-called fake news received six times the number of hits as real material, causing it to spread widely over the site, with right-wing authors creating a higher proportion of unfounded content than their left-leaning counterparts.
The influence of misinformation on restless users to tap sensationalist headlines has long been recognized, but a behavioral study of Facebook users undertaken by researchers at New York University and the Université Grenoble Alpes in France has now measured this impact for the first time.
The peer-reviewed results are expected to rekindle the debates that surrounded a contentious campaign, in which both Democrats and Republicans criticized Facebook's algorithms of fostering voter division and rancor. During the height of the campaign, misinformation peddlers received six times the number of hits as credible sites such as CNN or the World Health Organization.
The research, which was published in The Wall Street Journal, examined 2,551 pages classified by NewsGuard and Media Bias/Fact Check based on their political leanings and propensity for spreading false information. These were then compared to encounter with well-known misinformation sources such as Occupy Democrats and Breitbart, and other more traditional factual outlets.
Researchers discovered that false news of any political flavor piqued people's curiosity far more than dry factual sites, with right-wing sources being slightly more common.
In response to the article, Facebook didn't deny the results but did emphasize that the statistics represented engagement rather than total page views, which are not disclosed to researchers. “This research looks primarily at how people engage with material, which should not be mistaken with how many people view it on Facebook,” said spokesman Joe Osborne. When you look at the stuff that has the largest reach on Facebook, you will notice that it is not at all like what this survey suggests.”
Disturbing spring research on the spread of hate speech on Facebook discovered that six out of every 10,000 views contained abusive, threatening, or prejudiced language.