Scoping the “Fake News” Problem: What Fraction of Americans’ Information Diet Is Fake News, or Even News at All?

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

Since the 2016 US presidential election, the production, distribution, consumption, and influence of false and otherwise misleading news has emerged as a topic of urgent interest among researchers, journalists, and policymakers. Underlying this widespread concern are two assumptions: first, that news-related content broadly construed comprises a significant fraction of the total information diet of ordinary Americans; and second, that the prevalence of fake news is comparable to, or even greater than, that of mainstream news (Silverman 2016; Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral 2018). In this project we propose to examine both these assumptions by quantifying the prevalence of different categories of content—non-news, news in general, and fake news—on Facebook, Twitter, and in a representative panel of web users. In addition, we will examine how these fractions vary by region, age, gender, and ideological leaning. Our objective in answering these questions is to place the ongoing debate around the impact of fake news and social media platforms on democratic processes in the broader context of the total information diet of Americans, as well as to suggest further directions for media research in general.

Research Team

Principal Investigator

Duncan Watts

Principal Researcher and Partner, University of Pennsylvania

  • Bio ▾

    Duncan Watts is a principal researcher and partner at Microsoft and an A. D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University. Prior to joining Microsoft Research in 2012, he was from 2000 to 2007 a professor of sociology at Columbia University, and then a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directed the Human Social Dynamics group. In July, he will join the University of Pennsylvania as the Stevens University Professor of computer science, business, and communication. Watts’s research on social networks and collective dynamics has appeared in a wide range of journals, from Nature, Science, and Physical Review Letters to the American Journal of Sociology and Harvard Business Review, and has been recognized by the 2009 German Physical Society Young Scientist Award for Socio and Econophysics, the 2013 Lagrange-CRT Foundation Prize for Complexity Science, and the 2014 Everett Rogers M. Rogers Award. He is also the author of three books: Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (W.W. Norton, 2003), Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness (Princeton University Press, 1999), and most recently, Everything Is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer (Crown Business, 2011). Watts holds a BSc in physics from the Australian Defence Force Academy, from which he also received his officer’s commission in the Royal Australian Navy, and a PhD in theoretical and applied mechanics from Cornell University.

Participants

Hunt Allcott

Associate Professor of Economics, New York University

  • Bio ▾

    Hunt Allcott is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, an associate professor of economics at New York University, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a coeditor of the Journal of Public Economics. He is a scientific director of ideas42, a think tank that applies insights from psychology and economics to business and policy design problems; an affiliate of Poverty Action Lab, a network of researchers who use randomized evaluations to answer critical policy questions in the fight against poverty; and a faculty affiliate of E2e, a group of economists, engineers, and behavioral scientists focused on evaluating and improving energy efficiency policy. He was also a contributing author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report. Professor Allcott holds a PhD from Harvard University and a BS and MS from Stanford University. Before coming to NYU, he was the Energy and Society Fellow in the MIT Economics Department and the MIT Energy Initiative. He has also worked in the private sector as a consultant with Cambridge Energy Research Associates and in international development as a consultant to the World Bank. New York University is an economist at Microsoft Research. He has a PhD in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written extensively, in both the academic and popular press. His work pushes the boundaries on varying data and methods: polling, prediction markets, social media and online data, and large behavioral and administrative data. His work focuses on solving practical and interesting questions including mapping and updating public opinion, the market for news, effect of advertising, finance, and an economist take on public policy.

David Rothschild

Economist, Microsoft Research

  • Bio ▾

    David Rothschild is an economist at Microsoft Research. He has a PhD in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written extensively, in both the academic and popular press. His work pushes the boundaries on varying data and methods: polling, prediction markets, social media and online data, and large behavioral and administrative data. His work focuses on solving practical and interesting questions including: mapping and updating public opinion, the market for news, effect of advertising, finance, and an economist take on public policy.

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