Evaluating the Fake News Problem at the Scale of the Information Ecosystem

Allen, Jennifer; Howland, Baird; Mobius, Markus M.; Rothschild, David M.; Watts, Duncan

“Fake news,” broadly defined as deliberately false or misleading information masquerading as legitimate news, is frequently asserted to be pervasive on the web, and on social media in particular, with serious consequences for public opinion, political polarization, and ultimately democracy. Using a unique multimode data set that comprises a nationally representative sample of mobile, desktop, and television consumption across all categories of media content, we refute this conventional wisdom on three levels. First, news consumption of any sort is heavily outweighed by other forms of media consumption, comprising at most 14.2% of Americans’ daily media diets. Second, to the extent that Americans do consume news, it is overwhelmingly from television, which accounts for roughly five times as much as news consumption as online, while a supermajority of Americans consume little or no news online at all. Third, fake news comprises only about 1% of overall news consumption and 0.15% of Americans’ daily media diet. Although consumption data alone cannot determine that online misinformation in any dose is not dangerous to democracy, our results suggest that the origins of public mis-informedness and polarization are more likely to lie in the content of ordinary news--especially on television--or alternatively in the avoidance of news altogether as they are in overt fakery.