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What We Know About Fake News

Researchers are learning why people believe fake news, and how to stop it.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Former President Barack Obama banned the pledge of allegiance in schools before leaving office, and Pope Francis endorsed President Donald Trump in the 2016 election….right?

Wrong. These are just two of hundreds of fake news stories published in 2016 that were shared millions of times over social media platforms.

While it may feel like a new phenomenon, fake news has been part of journalism in America for more than a century. Case in point: In 1835, the New York Sun reported that a British astronomer discovered life on the moon. And in 1850, a letter published in several U.S. newspapers convinced thousands of Americans that southern states planned to confederate with Mexico.

Unfortunately, fake news is everywhere now. But what does it mean? Is there any data on the impacts of fake news in our society?

While the body of research on the contemporary fake news phenomenon is not large, researchers from a broad range of disciplines have started taking a careful look at what we know about fake news, and how to combat it. Here a round-up of recent studies:

First, a working paper published this month by researchers at Stanford University finds it unlikely that fake news changed the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. In their analysis, researchers examined three sources of data: fake news hits and shares on web sites and social media platforms, rankings of the top fake news stories in 2016 and a representative survey of 1,200 American voters.

Their analysis found in the three months leading up to the election, false news stories favoring President Donald Trump were shared 30 million times on Facebook, and those favoring Hilary Clinton were shared eight million times. Nevertheless, only 14 percent of people surveyed say they relied on social media sites (where fake news was most often shared) as their most important source of news. And even the most widely circulated fake news stories were only seen by a small percentage of Americans; of them, only half believed the fake news was true.

Next, research does show that our emotions play a role in how we interpret fake news. A 2015 study by a communications researcher at the University of Michigan found that the emotions of anger and anxiety can influence whether people believe fake news. Study participants, who identified their political beliefs, were asked to write something about immigration reform or the death penalty that made them feel angry or anxious. (A control group wrote about something that made them feel relaxed.)

The study determined that people who felt angry during their initial writing were more likely to refer to their political beliefs when evaluating misinformation. People who felt anxious were more opened-minded to views outside of their political beliefs. In both cases, presenting fact-checking information along with the fake news reduced the chances of participants believing the fake news.

The take-home message here: While political beliefs and emotions play a role in people believing fake news, fact-checking information is universally helpful in discrediting misinformation.

A third study – published earlier this week by researchers at Cambridge University – sought to find ways to prevent people from believing fake news stories. For the first part of the study, participants received different messages about climate change. Some were told 97 percent of scientists agree that humans are causing climate change, which is a fact. Other participants were presented with a fake petition asserting there is no factual basis that people are causing climate change; the petition included signatures from more than 31,000 “scientists.”

When asked later, the people who initially received the accurate information were 20 percent more likely to believe there is scientific consensus that people are causing climate change. And those who saw the fake petition were 9 percent less likely to believe there is scientific consensus on climate change.

For the second part of the study, researchers presented a different set of participants with additional information in an attempt to “inoculate” them against misinformation. Some of the news story included the fact that "some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” Another group was given more details about the fake petition, such as the inclusion of false names including the Spice Girls.

The end result: Giving people extra information worked! People who were given the general inoculation were 6.5 percent more likely to agree there is consensus on climate change, even when presented with the fake information. And those who received the additional details about the fake petition were 13 percent more likely to agree that there is consensus.

The take -home message for this study is an encouraging one: Facts can help in combating fake news!

To be sure, there is still a lot researchers do not understand about the current fake news phenomenon. But early research points to some hopeful evidence: it’s not likely that fake news make a substantial impact on the results of the 2016 presidential election; emotions play a role in whether or not people believe fake news; and presenting facts can help combat false news stories.


Weeks, Brian E. "Emotions, Partisanship, and Misperceptions: How Anger and Anxiety Moderate the Effect of Partisan Bias on Susceptibility to Political Misinformation." Journal of Communication 65.4 (2015): 699-719.

Linden, Sander Van Der, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, and Edward Maibach. "Inoculating the Public against Misinformation about Climate Change." Global Challenges (2017): 1600008.

Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. "Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election." (2017).