Fake News: Facebook Helps You Feel Well-Informed, Regardless of Actual Reading

After the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook faces the spotlight for spreading fake news stories. There are now hundreds (perhaps thousands) of fake news web sites — sites that publish news articles that look and seem to be real, but are complete fiction. Unlike older, well-known satirical websites, such as The Onion, many of these sites don’t indicate their fakeness.

But even if Facebook is helping spread fake news more than any other service ever, it begs the question — do people even read the news stories that appear in their Facebook feed? Let’s turn to the science…

Facebook, the international social network that got its start in 2004, promotes popular links most shared by other users in its news feed. The Facebook news feed does not offer full-length articles, but rather an abbreviated summary that consists only of a headline, two to three sentences about the main content of a news story, a picture, and social endorsement cues including comments and likes. Facebook does little to vet the links people share, instead relying on its algorithms to do most of the work.

According to the Pew Research Center (2015), 40 percent of people in a recent survey described Facebook as the most important or an important way to receive news. The same study shows that young adults and teens especially turn to Facebook for keeping current and up-to-date. According to Buzzfeed news, there were hundreds of pro-Trump fake news websites sharing fictional stories on Facebook. Their investigation revealed that in the run-up to the election more than 100 of them were being run from a single Balkan town.

German researchers (Muller et al., 2016) wanted to investigate whether the feeling of being well-informed through Facebook is based upon mere exposure to, or actual reading and processing, of news posts on Facebook. The new study, published in September in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, examined 390 German Internet users’ use of Facebook through a questionnaire.

“[T]he results show that the feeling of being informed through Facebook makes it significantly more likely that Facebook is used as a substitute for other news sources.”

The feeling of being well-informed is an important predictor of substitutive Facebook use. Individuals who have the impression that Facebook provides them with a sufficient amount of information about what is going on in the world more strongly tend to regard Facebook as a good substitute for other news sources. […]

Authors have argued that the feeling of being informed might represent an illusion of knowledge, i.e. individuals could be convinced to have a high level of knowledge whereas in fact they have not (Hall et al., 2007; Hollander, 1995; Park, 2001). […] A large amount of news posts within an individuals’ Facebook news feed could lead this person to believe to be well-informed about what is going on in the world, even if the person did not actually read and memorize the content of the posts.

The biggest weakness of this study is that it was entirely based on self-reporting. Asking Facebook users to report on their use of Facebook tends not to be as accurate as actually measuring a user’s actual use of the service, as people tend to show themselves in the most positive light possible.

But what the researchers found is disturbing. Even if people don’t bother following and reading the news links presented to them, Facebook users think they are more well-informed than they actually are. This illusion of knowledge is potentially problematic as Facebook is used as a substitute for consumption of actual news.

Why This Matters

If people increasingly rely on Facebook — which does very little vetting of the quality of the content it shows — for their news, people will have no guarantee that what they do bother reading is actually factual. At least if you go to CNN.com or FoxNews.com, you know the news they are reporting is generally factual (if not sometimes biased). Furthermore, if a Facebook user doesn’t even bother to read the story — as so many users don’t — they will never even know if the story was legitimate or a fake news story.

Facebook, which has long wanted to become the gatekeeper of your Internet experience (much like America Online once was in the dialup days of the Internet), has succeeded in getting you to spend more time on its site and making you feel informed. Sadly, feeling informed is not the same thing as actually being informed.

And since — unlike legitimate news websites — Facebook does little to ensure the stories it’s showing you are legitimate stories from legitimate sources, the end user — you! — has to vet stories on a case-by-case basis. Guess how many people spend much time doing that? Very few. Leading some to question whether Facebook might have a fake news problem. (It does.)

Until Facebook takes its news role far more seriously (much like Google News has been doing for the past decade), you probably should resist the temptation of relying on Facebook as your primary (and certainly not your sole) news source. Go to a news aggregator (such as Google News or Yahoo News) or check out a few news sources on your own.

Because relying on Facebook’s faulty algorithms to show you only what’s trending and what you’re interested in is bound to result in your feeling well-informed, but not actually being well-informed. And possibly even being purposely mis-informed by a fake news site that Facebook is actively promoting.

References

Müllera, P., Schneidersa, P., & Schäfera, S. (2016). Appetizer or main dish? Explaining the use of Facebook news posts as a substitute for other news sources. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 431-441. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.09.003

Pew Research Center. (2015). The evolving role of news on Twitter and Facebook. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/files/2015/07/Twitter-and-News-Survey-Report-FINAL2.pdf