Last year, fake news websites had about twice as much influence on the media landscape as fact-checking websites did, according to a new study co-authored by a CU Boulder researcher.
Between 2014 and 2016, fake news websites outpaced fact-checking websites, both in terms of the number of articles produced each month and their influence on the broader media agenda, the study found.
"Fact checkers largely were independent in what they chose to cover, but their topical focus didn’t really translate very well to other media," said Chris Vargo, an assistant professor at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information (CMCI) who co-authored the study with Boston University Assistant Professors Lei Guo and Michelle Amazeen. "The media landscape isn’t listening to fact checking as much as it is to fake news, which is particularly troublesome."
In addition, because fake news is being created at such a high rate and spread so widely, traditional outlets increasingly feel pressure to respond to fake articles and refute false claims. In this way, fake news has real power over the broader media agenda to direct and divert attention to and from issues.
"I think the big thing that I’m realizing across these studies is that anything can distract us," said Vargo, who has done a series of studies analyzing data to explore agenda-setting trends across the media.
In this and previous studies Vargo used the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone, which includes millions of news articles across all types of media. He grouped and sorted the articles by topic and media type to determine which categories of media had the most impact on which topics.
"International relations and topics that mentioned other countries were more susceptible to the agendas of fake news," Vargo said. "I think that the news media tends to follow along with these issues a little bit more just simply because it’s harder to directly observe things that are going on in other countries and news media need to rely on external reportage."
In looking at specific types of fake news articles being produced, Vargo and his team found that fake news agendas are becoming more autonomous, meaning their topics are less connected to stories featured by traditional outlets.
"They’re more and more often stories that haven’t been trending or haven’t been being talked about," Vargo said. "They’re more original and that’s scary."
Vargo was more encouraged by the finding that fake news’ influence steadily declined from 2014 to 2016, he said. Overall, the media still manages to cover topics that most people find important.
"Our study found that to a small degree, yes, fake news does influence what the press talks about, but largely, the press has the ability—and maintains the ability—to cover the issues that are most important to a society today," he said.
The study was recently published in the journal New Media & Society.
For his next project in this research series, Vargo will survey about 1,000 people to find out if certain types of people are more likely to spread fake news on social media.
"Then we’ll be able to talk more about the why—or at least the how—which will help us better understand this fake news phenomenon," he said.