Reason Roundup

Another Blow for Fake News About Fake News: Reason Roundup

Plus: Author Zadie Smith talking cultural appropriation, and Budweiser versus Big Corn


Frédéric Cirou/F. Cirou/Altopress/Newscom

More research on how social media were used to spread disinformation in 2016 finds that the scope and reach of so-called "fake news" were greatly exaggerated. Looking at a large sample of Twitter users, a team of researchers from Harvard, Northeastern University, and SUNY–Buffalo have found that "fake news accounted for nearly 6% of all news consumption, but it was heavily concentrated." Just 1 percent of Twitter users saw 80 percent of the misleading or false content, and only 0.1 percent of users shared some 80 percent it.

"A cluster of fake news sources shared overlapping audiences on the extreme right, but for people across the political spectrum, most political news exposure still came from mainstream media outlets," they write in Science.

Information from mainstream media outlets is not without its own problems, of course. And arguably the biggest concern when it comes to misinformation on social media comes from users—including mainstream journalists—either spreading viral content that is wrong or framing factually accurate content in a misleading and volatile way. Neither this study nor similar recent research on Facebook looks at these phenomenon.

Instead, they concentrated on the spread of outright fake stories from sites that deliberately dish out false content, as well from fringe political sites (such as Infowars) that Snopes has flagged for frequently trafficking in dubious reporting. The authors define "fake news" as editorial content that has "the trappings of legitimately produced news" but not the "norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information."

We can still glean some good insights from this study. Most importantly, it suggests that paranoia about outright disinformation dominating election discourse was unwarranted. More subtly biased journalism should worry democracy-doomsayers more than blatant hoaxes or those dreaded Russian bots.

Excluding "supersharers" and "superconsumers" of fake news—who accounted for 80 percent of the fake news spread and seen—the researchers found that Twitter users had, on aveage, "about 10 exposures…to fake news sources during" the month leading up to the 2016 election. "The average proportion of fake news sources (among political URLs) in an individual's feed" was 1.18 percent.

The researchers note that "people who had 5% or more of their political exposures from fake news sources constituted 2.5% of individuals on the left and 16.3% of the right." As in the similar Facebook study, this may reflect a greater portion of blatantly fake news sites being devoted to conservative or pro-Trump content during the campaign.

"Other factors such as age and low ratio of followers to followees were also positively associated with sharing fake news sources, but effect sizes were small," the researchers note. Men, whites, and swing-state voters were also slightly more likely to be affected.


Zadie Smith won't let you pigeonhole her. And she doesn't think such pigeonholing fair for other writers, either. At an recent event in Colombia, the British novelist and essayist called out those who would advise writers to stay in their ethnic, racial, or gender lane when creating characters.

"If someone says to me: 'A black girl would never say that,' I'm saying: 'How can you possibly know?' The problem with that argument is it assumes the possibility of total knowledge of humans," said Smith.

She continued with a comment about her debut book, White Teeth, and its diverse range of characters: "It had all sorts of mistakes I'm sure but if I didn't take a chance I'd only ever be able to write novels about mixed-race girls growing up in Willesden." More here.


Budweiser versus Big Corn!


• Some 3,750 U.S. troops are being deployed into the president's political theater on our southern border.

• A Transportation Security Administration agent committed suicide in a Florida airport over the weekend, prompting pandemonium.

• Eugene Volokh's very sensible take on the Gov Northam controvery.

• A Brooklyn-based jail went for days without electricity, prompting protests and concern for the well-being of those stuck inside. Officials from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which run the facility, initially tried to reject extra generators and blankets.

• Maine is cracking down on CBD products. Will other states follow?

• "Basically, #MeToo has become a risk-management issue for men."

• "Fights have broken out over donated fans or hot plates—with residents claiming they've lost out because of racial prejudices. There are two washing machines for over 400 people. Bed bugs are a constant problem. Theft is common." Huck magazine explores life inside a Greek refugee squat.

• Right? Right…?

• Immigration agents are going after 21 Savage, who has claimed to be from Atlanta, saying that the Grammy-nominated rapper is actually from the U.K. and has overstayed his visa.

• The Twilight Zone is back!