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Political “fake news” commonplace on social media and frequently and knowingly shared, new survey finds

  • More than half of British social media users (57.7 percent) came across news in the past month on social media that they thought was not fully accurate
  • Over 40 percent of news sharers admit to sharing inaccurate or false news, with 17.3 percent admitting to sharing news they thought was made up when they shared it
  • A substantial amount of the sharing on social media of inaccurate or made up news goes unchallenged

More than half of British social media users came across what they thought was political “fake news” in the past month, a new survey by Loughborough University has found.

Over 40 percent of respondents also admitted to sharing inaccurate or false news, with 17.3 percent admitting to sharing news they thought was made up when they shared it.

The survey was designed by the University’s Online Civic Culture Centre (O3C) to better understand why so many people will readily share “fake news”.

Carried out by Opinium Research, it was sent to an online sample representative of the UK adult population, based on key demographic variables such as age, gender, and region of residence. Between July 5 – 16 2,005 respondents completed the questionnaire.

The survey set out to answer three key questions:

  • How widespread is the sharing of false and misleading political news among British social media users?
  • To what extent is there a persistent and damaging “anything goes” culture among those who share political news on social media?
  • To what extent does the correction of false and misleading news through the “wisdom of crowds”—a previously much-lauded feature of the internet—actually operate on British social media?

A summary of the reports key findings is below:

  • More than half of British social media users (57.7 percent) came across news in the past month on social media that they thought was not fully accurate.
  • 42.8 percent of news sharers admit to sharing inaccurate or false news; 17.3 percent admit to sharing news they thought was made up when they shared it. These users are more likely to be male, younger, and more interested in politics.
  • A substantial amount of the sharing on social media of inaccurate or made up news goes unchallenged. Fewer social media users (33.8 percent) report being corrected by other social media users than admit to sharing false or exaggerated news (42.8 percent). And 26.4 percent of those who shared inaccurate or made up news were not corrected.
  • There are some grounds for optimism, almost three quarters of respondents who shared news that was exaggerated or made up also reported being reprimanded by other social media users.
  • However, the most problematic news sharing does not stimulate many social media users to correct the sharers: in total, only 8.5 percent of British social media users said that they reprimanded another social media user for sharing news that was made up.
  • Those who share news on social media are mainly motivated to inform others and express their feelings, but for some (almost a fifth of news sharers, 18.7 percent) see upsetting others as an important motivation when they share news.
  • There are some partisan differences in sharing inaccurate or made up news on UK social media. Conservative supporters, and those with right-wing ideological beliefs, are more likely to share inaccurate news; they are also more likely to be reprimanded by others for doing so. Labour supporters, and those who hold left-wing ideological beliefs, are more likely to see inaccurate news and to correct other social media users for sharing it.
  • About one-third (31 percent) of British social media users share news on social media at least once a month. The demographic and behavioural profile of these users resembles that of the most politically active members of the general public—they are more likely to be male, have higher educational attainment, and be more interested in politics—although younger people are more likely than older people to share news.

Speaking about the report Professor Andrew Chadwick, Director of the University’s O3C, said: “In today’s media systems, large numbers of ordinary citizens circulate political information with great regularity. Consequently, false and misleading information can become widely distributed—and quickly.

“Exploring why, and with what effects, people share news about politics on social media is therefore an essential part of the broader debate about the relationship between the internet and democracy.

“The problem is that we currently know very little about the motivations that drive people to share political news on social media and how these might be contributing to changes in our online civic culture. If we can learn more about the things people try to achieve when they share news online—and the extent to which these motivations might reinforce or undermine the distribution of false or misleading information—liberal democracies can start to think about how they can reduce important online harms.

“This report is the first to address these issues in Britain.”

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 19/52

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