UCL study finds voters impacted by fake news prior to 2016 US election

Amelia Heathman
Consumption of fake news increased on the run up to the US election in 2016

Since the US presidential election in 2016, there has been much discussion concerning fake news and its affect on the outcome of the election.

According to research by the UCL School of Management, increased production of fake news prior to the election did impact the public’s news viewing habits.

The study focused on the seven weeks leading up to the election and took into account the views of 1,400 people who accumulated over 1.7 million website visits during this time. The data was supplied by Mozilla, the developers behind the Firefox Web browser.

It showed that the production of fake news articles led to more people reading fakes news sites.

Fake news in the US election

Assistant professor Anil Doshi, who led the study, and his co-authors found that the consumption of fake news steadily increased in the lead up to the election in November, and then tailed off afterwards.

Prior to the election, an increase in the availability of fake news led to an increase in the odds of someone visiting a fake news site. A 10-article increase of fake news pieces led to an increase of someone visiting a fake news site by 3.8 per cent.

By comparison, the consumption of credible news was largely consistent before and after the election, with a spike on the day following the event.

As well, the UCL research shows that fake news production affects everyone, not just those who have a prior disposition to it.

Speaking about the findings, Doshi said: “We have always dealt with misinformation, but now anyone can produce it, it is instantly available to everybody and oversight is increasingly difficult.

“Although we cannot directly say how our findings affected voting behaviour, the 2016 US election was decided by such narrow margins in some states, we need to seriously consider institutional and regulatory responses.”

What next for fake news?

Studies such as this one demonstrate the far reach of fake news in the run-up to the US election with additional research from academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) backing up the statement that fake news was more likely to be spread than true pieces.

Yet, more and more is being done to solve the problem of disinformation. Recently, a team of social scientists at Cambridge University created a fake news game, exposing people to propaganda tactics to prevent them being influenced by fake news.

As well, the BBC also recently launched an online interactive game to help young people in the UK identify fake news.

Since the US election, the impetus to educate people and prevent the spread of fake news from having any more of an impact than it already has done can only be a good thing.