The issue of "outright" fake news spreading on Facebook is rare in the UK, according to new research, but “misinformation” was found to be more widespread and distributed by traditional media.
“Our analysis of the most shared news and opinion content on Facebook shows clearly that especially in the UK, outright ‘fake news’... was both highly marginal and in aggregate far less important than content disseminated by news organisations with origins in print journalism,” said the report from Enders Analysis.
The study was based on a “strict” definition for fake news and a more “inclusive concept” that covers misinformation, where there is not an intention to mislead.
The analysis of the top 1,000 most shared pieces of content on Facebook about Brexit found they largely came from established publishers, the majority of which (35 per cent) were tabloids. Major online publishers accounted for 27 per cent, broadsheets 24 per cent and broadcasters 11 per cent.
The top five publishers of content about Brexit on Facebook based on shares were the Daily Express, Daily Mail, BBC, the Telegraph and YouTube.
In a comparison to the most shared during the US election, the researchers found “both countries were characterised by a high ratio of opinion over reporting as well as sensationalist headlines”, while UK tabloids occupied “a similar niche” as the fake news publishers and more extreme news sites found in the US, with highly engaging content that also had a strong ideological lean.
Publishers flagged as fake news accounted for the largest proporation (28 per cent) of most shared articles about Trump and Clinton during the US election, alongside major publishers.
Even the rise recently of hyperpartisan sites such as the Canary and Evolve Politic was not on a par with fake news publishers in the US, however.
“Nevertheless, while highly opinionated and sometimes containing factual inaccuracies, this content was not comparable to the typical output of the fake news publishers observed in the US,” said the report.
“As the distribution pattern of Facebook shares shows, focussing on articles containing demonstrably false reporting and ignoring those by news organisations misses the larger picture of several kinds of publishers vying for wide distribution on Facebook. For many of these publishers, disseminating disinformation is either the goal or (more commonly) the means to maximise revenue."
The report concluded with several questions which warrant further investigation, such as why opinion and sensationalism is so much more appealing to users on social networks than informational reporting and if media literacy needs to be improved.
It added that Facebook, which has upped its efforts to tackle the issue, “can’t and shouldn't” be expected to act on limiting the reach of disinformation alone. “... digital news distribution touches on complex questions including information and democracy, media literacy and heterogeneous cultural and social norms,” it said.
Facebook itself has stopped using the term fake news, instead using the term “false news”. A spokesperson for the social network told online publication Slate: “The term ‘fake news’ has taken on a life of its own. False news communicates more clearly what we’re describing: information that is designed to be confused with legitimate news, and is intentionally false.”