News Fakes

Mainstream media spreads fake news

Mainstream media contributes significantly to the infectious spread of conspiracy fantasies. But it could hold the cure.

Part 4 of a series on MSM and fake news.

Online news media are more part of the problem of online misinformation than they are the solution.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content, Tow Center for Digital Journalism (Craig Silverman, 2015)

Journalists are quick to blame social media for spreading fake news but slow to examine their own role. They work within the web, a networked environment, but seem not to understand how that network works.

By obsessively over-covering every piece of trending bullshit, they boost the search results that lead people to those lies. By printing the fabrications of publicity-hungry politicians and fake-news profiteers, they help elect those politicians and fund fake news.

When debunking those lies, journalists assume readers trust and believe them. They don’t. A mountain of evidence shows trust in media remains near historic lows.

And once a lie infects social media, it festers for days, sometimes decades — a zombie claim. How do those lies get there in the first place? Often it’s via mainstream media (MSM). We’ll present the relevant research then suggest ways MSM can switch from causing to curing the infodemic.

Having every newsroom publish a QAnon explainer back in August after people turned up at Trump rallies with Q signs and t-shirts was exactly what the Q community had hoped would happen.

5 Lessons for Reporting in an Age of Disinformation, First Draft (2018)
Son, to Father: The earth is flat and the pandemic is a hoax, right Pop? Mother: Oh, my poor son. (Art by John Gill)
© John Gill

A decade of research points to MSM as “principle disseminators of fake news” (Tsfati et al., 2020), concluding that “most people hear about fake news stories not from fake news websites but through their coverage in mainstream news outlets.” A 2010 analysis of 16M tweets on 3K topics, looking for trending patterns, concluded: “A majority of the content propagated to cause trends arise from traditional media sources with social media acting as a selective amplifier” (Asur et al., 2011).

MSM is the initial vector for virality, for real and fake news. This from a Tow Center report: “Lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen” (Silverman, 2015). A study in Science found “the origins of public misinformedness and polarization are more likely to lie in the content of ordinary news… as they are in overt fakery” (Allen et al., 2020). And from the Annals of the International Communication Association, “most people hear about fake news stories not from fake news websites but through their coverage in mainstream news outlets” (Tsfati et al., 2020).

Even on social media, “mainstream URLs used as evidence for the truthfulness of conspiracy theories were shared two times more” than from other sources, such as fake-news sites and blogs (Papakyriakopoulos, 2020). A Harvard University study concludes “mass media outlets continue to be the most important source of, and defense against, disinformation in American politics” (Benkler et al., 2020).

In contrast to conventional wisdom, mainstream sources contribute overall more to conspiracy theories diffusion than alternative and other sources.

The spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories on social media and the effect of content moderation, The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review (Papakyriakopoulos, 2020)

Faking it

We assume conspiracy memes contaminate us via fake news and social media. But the data doesn’t support that. Few people rely on social media for their news. Fewer read or share fake-news stories. The public’s main news source is still MSM.

In a 2020 Pew survey, most people use traditional outlets (81%) for news: either broadcast (53%) or online (25%) and print (3%) news. Less than one-in-five said social media was their primary news source (18%).

Most people (81%) get their news mainly from traditional media (broadcast, print, news sites), only 18% say social media is their primary news source

Few people read fake news

Few people get their news mainly from social media. Fewer still do from fake-news sites.

  • 10% of people account for 60% of all fake-news site visits1
  • Only 2.6% of visits to news articles were to fake-news sites2
  • Only 1% of people consume 80% of fake-news stories3
  • Only 0.15% of Americans’ total daily media diet is fake news4
  • Sources: Guess et al., 20181,2, Grinberg et al., 20193, Allen et al., 20204

A paper titled “The small, disloyal fake news audience” (Nelson & Taneja, 2018) compared online visitation data (from comScore) for 24 real news sites with 30 fake ones in 2016. Real news averaged 40 times more visits than fake news — and people stayed at real news sites twice as long.

Fake news audience 40 times smaller than for real news
Audience size of real and fake news sites from January 2016–January 2017, as measured by unique visitors, in thousands, Nelson & Taneja, 2018

Few people share fake news

  • Only 8.5% of Facebook shares are fake-news stories1
  • Only 1% of Twitter users consume 80% of the fake-news tweets2
  • Only 0.1% of Twitter users tweet fake news3
  • Sources: Guess et al., 20191, Grinberg et al., 20192,3

The vast majority of Facebook users in our data did not share any articles from fake news domains in 2016 at all.

Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook, Guess et al,, 2019

Collating conspiracies

The Covidian era has offered researchers opportunities to follow fake news as it coursed through the media, from mainstream to social. They tracked COVID and mail-in-ballot misinfo. In all cases, it was MSM that first pushed the falsehoods into widespread public consciousness.

Sharing the virus

A Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review study identified 268K Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan posts ( January–March 2020) containing 11K unique URLs that referred to COVID-19’s origin. It classified the posts by content: supporting conspiracy theories, used as evidence for conspiracy theories, or neither, and the URLs by source: mainstream, alternative, or other (Papakyriakopoulos, 2020).

“On average, mainstream URLs supporting conspiracy theories were shared four times more on Facebook and Twitter in comparison to URLs coming from alternative sources. Similarly, mainstream URLs used as evidence for the truthfulness of conspiracy theories were shared two times more. Overall, 17% of stories reinforcing conspiracy theories coming from mainstream sources resulted in 60% and 55% of the total Facebook and Twitter shares, respectively.”

Median Facebook shares by source and URL type
Social shares supporting or used as evidence for supporting conspiracy theories

The MSM stories did not support the conspiracy theories but were shared by those who did. Two factors could explain why.

  1. Cred: Social platform algos rate MSM sources as more credible, resulting in “stories reinforcing conspiracy theories and coming from mainstream sources being filtered significantly less.”
  2. Hed: The study “How the Mainstream Media Help to Spread Disinformation about COVID-19” pointed out that “users often just read headlines while scrolling through their timelines. Thus, some users might share news from the mainstream media to legitimate disinformation about COVID-19” (Soares & Recuero, 2021).

The researchers suggested, “journalists ought to take extra care when producing news, especially headlines, which will be the most visible part of the stories on social media.” NPR proved this point in a 2014 April Fools experiment. They titled their short article “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” and specifically requested that people not comment.

We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this “story.”

Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?, NPR (2014)

NPR posted the link on Facebook: It got 2K+ comments. They did it again in 2016 and got another 800.

NPR’s more recent study, “The Life Cycle Of A COVID-19 Vaccine Lie” (NPR, Graphica, 2021), followed the rise of the COVID/female-fertility falsehood, tracking the key points where the misinfo was shared or amplified: “Influencers began picking it up, and a few clickbait websites wrote fake news stories. But it was the real news that gave the lies their biggest boost.”

Do you watch the nightly news?
Do you watch it faithfully, night after night?
When they go “blah, blah, blah”
do you go “bah, bah, bah”?

Electronic Sheep, The Android Sisters, Songs Of Electronic Despair

Mail-in myths

TechDirt’s headline was “News study: Once Again, The Mainstream Media Is A Bigger Problem In Spreading Disinformation Than Social Media.” The study tracked the 2020 disinformation campaign falsely alleging mail-in ballot fraud (by analyzing 55K online media stories, 5M tweets, and 75K Facebook-page posts with millions of engagements).

As with the studies above, the researchers found “a profound disconnect between the broad public concern with social media disinformation, the persistent scientific evidence that exposure to online fake news is concentrated in a tiny minority of users, and survey evidence that repeatedly shows that less than 20 percent of US respondents say they rely on social media as a major source of political news.”

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, they dismissed “clickbait factories, fake pages (Russian or otherwise), or Facebook’s algorithms” as the “central actors in voting disinformation” which “could explain any peak in engagement.”

A better explanation was, once again, MSM: “In this disinformation campaign, social media plays a decidedly secondary and supporting role. The disinformation campaign itself is elite-driven and transmitted primarily through mass media, including outlets on the center-left and in the mainstream.” (Benklet et al, 2020).

There is no survey evidence or other empirically-grounded basis to think that social media will be the primary source of public opinion formation.

Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign, Berkman Center (Benkler et al., 2020)

The timeline below charts the spread of voter-fraud disinfo, from MSM coverage to social media.

Timeline of mainstream and social media stories on vote fraud
Changes in the number of stories published online, tweets, and Facebook posts that mention mail-in voting or absentee balloting and fraud or election rigging, March–August 2020, with icons noting the precipitating event for each peak (Benkler et al., 2020)

Trust us

News stories reporting about fake news in an attempt to correct misinformation are not necessarily perceived as more credible than the fake news they try to expose or correct.

Causes and consequences of mainstream media dissemination of fake news: literature review and synthesis, Annals of the International Communication Association (Tsfati et al., 2020)

Religion essayist Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, has been investigating why “Too many evangelical Christians fall for conspiracy theories online, and gullibility is not a virtue” and advocating “Facts Are Our Friends: Why Sharing Fake News Makes Us Look Stupid and Harms Our Witness.”

Among evangelicals, his surveys reveal that “a reflexive disregard of what are legitimate news sources can feed a penchant for conspiracy theories.” He says, “many evangelicals have seen, over and over, news sources report on them irresponsibly, with bias, and — at times — with malice. When you see that enough, about people you know, there is a consequence.”

Mistrust of MSM is far from limited to the religious. Gallop has been asking Americans whether they trust the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” Six-of-ten don’t, answering “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%).

In the 1970s when Gallop began posing that question, media trust averaged 70%. Since then, trust has slid downhill. The last time it topped 50% was 2003.

Gallop poll on Trust in News Media, 1972-2020
Media Use and Evaluation, Gallop (2020)

“Declaring Information Bankruptcy,” the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, had equally depressing news for the media. In a global survey (33K respondents from 28 countries), trust in all information sources was at “record lows.”

  • The media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan: 61% agree.
  • Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations: 59% agree.
  • Most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public: 59% agree.
  • Source: Edelman Trust Barometer (2021)

In a 2021 Reuters survey (of 92,000 news consumers in 46 countries), the United States ranked dead last in media trust, at 29%.

Editor’s sidebar

Basically what we’re pointing out here are two very well-known things:

  1. Cherry-picking: the rhetorical strategy of selectively using information as evidence to support one’s argument, often out of context or inaccurately. When people deliberately spread misinfo using legitimate sources — either scary (or outright erroneous) headlines, or even quotes/clips isolated from more complex material — for their own purposes, this is cherry-picking. Even if they do it without being malicious, it’s still a problem. This has had a long, active lifespan as a rhetorical and propaganda tool. So, how do writers/publishers/content creators guard against having their material used this way?
  2. Confirmation bias: this psychological/sociological tendency has a more recent shelf-life than cherry-picking but it’s widely known about and accepted. Isn’t it? What the hell do we do if people don’t care about passing along (and often framing) information they find from MSM, emails, social media, and wherever other gossip reinforces their belief structures?
  3. (I’ll add a third:) Postmodernity: the public perception that everything is now ripe for mashing up and mixing together, often uncritically, mistaking ‘reactionaryism’ for ‘skepticism’ and ‘criticism.’ How does one teach people to be analytical, when everyone dis-/mistrusts authority figures (often with good reason), when anti-intellectualism is all the rage (vs. admitting expertise), and what passes for criticism isn’t debate and discussion, but shouts and complaints?

Dear journalist,

Most people first encounter fake news and conspiracy memes when newsrooms like yours report them. Here’s how you can help stop the massive, toxic tidal waves of bullshit.

Rebuild trust

Most people don’t trust you, haven’t for decades. Journalism needs to earn back the trust it had in the 1970s.

Errors in your news outlet degrade confidence in the entire news profession. The root of most media mistakes is in not checking sources or using anonymous ones.

Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all and should never be heard attacking or praising others.

Ethics Handbook, NPR

Watch your hed

In search results and social media, headlines are all many see. Construct your hed to be meaningful and accurate. Leave the clickbait to the bottom feeders.

Breaking News: Do Mail-in Ballots Cause COVID?
David Dees (, conspillustrator

Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.

Betteridge’s law of headlines

Work the web

You have the power to promote the best resources. Choose links strategically. For example, don’t drag down your article with yet another in-depth debunk of vaccine-injected tracking chips (thereby increasing SEO for the chip-spiracists). Instead, link to a solid fact-check.

Bill Gates: In retrospect, hiding all the microchips in Horse Dewormer was a stroke of genius

List your sources but, for Yahweh’s sake, don’t link directly to fake news sites, even when covering their stories. Instead, link to a web-archived version.

Un-pack journalism

If 100 other news sources have written essentially the same story, does the world really need you to write the 101st? You are not your readers’ only news source.

Journalism that is practiced by reporters in a group and that is marked by uniformity of news coverage and lack of original thought or initiative

Pack journalism, Merriam-Webster Dictionary

They all fed off the same pool report, the same daily handout, the same speech by the candidate… After a while, they began to believe the same rumors, subscribe to the same theories, and write the same stories.

Timothy Crouse, The Boys on the Bus

Don’t be a BS superspreader

We are flooded with massive, toxic tidal waves of bullshit. You (and maybe only you) can stem that tide.

This March, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland announced they were through publishing outright lies:

Just because [a candidate] makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news… We are proud of our role as a center of discourse, with a diversity of viewpoints you can find nowhere else in the state. But we do not knowingly publish ridiculous and idiotic claims.

When candidates make reckless statements just to get attention, should they get attention? Letter from the Editor, The Plain Dealer ((March 2021)

Editor Chris Quinn wrote an update in July: “Our policy is to completely ignore this kind of thing, to not take the bait and give these false statements the oxygen they need to flourish. We learned over the previous four to five years that candidates had weaponized the media, using our practices in covering to spread dangerous nonsense… Readers responded quite favorably to what we are doing.”

No angry comments demanded the return of fake news. No subscribers canceled for lack of conspiracy memes.

If candidates find that outrageous behavior gets their name into headlines, they will continue thinking of ways to become ever-more outrageous. We think our readers prefer substance. We’re sticking with our new policy.”

Ignoring false statements and stunts by politicians is working well so far: Letter from the Editor, The Plain Dealer (Chris Quinn, Editor, July 2021)

We wish our audience were media literate. To fight fake news, we media folk need a helluva lot more digital literacy. That’s how we’ll earn back trust.

Editors: Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding.

  1. Soares, Felipe, and Raquel Recuero (2021). How the Mainstream Media Help to Spread Disinformation about Covid-19. M/C Journal 24.1.
  2. Silverman, C. (2015). Lies, damn lies and viral content. Tow Center Reports
  3. Asur, S., Huberman, B. A., Szabo, G., & Wang, C. (2011, July). Trends in social media: Persistence and decay. In Fifth international AAAI conference on weblogs and social media.
  4. Papakyriakopoulos, O., Serrano, J. C. M., & Hegelich, S. (2020). The spread of COVID-19 conspiracy theories on social media and the effect of content moderation. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 10.
  5. Allen, J., Howland, B., Mobius, M., Rothschild, D., & Watts, D. J. (2020). Evaluating the fake news problem at the scale of the information ecosystem. Science Advances, 6(14), eaay3539.
  6. Benkler, Y., Tilton, C., Etling, B., Roberts, H., Clark, J., Faris, R.,… & Schmitt, C. (2020). Mail-in voter fraud: Anatomy of a disinformation campaign. Available at SSRN.
  7. Guess, A., Nagler, J., & Tucker, J. (2019). Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook. Science Advances, 5(1), eaau4586.
  8. Guess, A., Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2018). Selective exposure to misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign. European Research Council, 9(3), 4.
  9. Grinberg, N., Joseph, K., Friedland, L., Swire-Thompson, B., & Lazer, D. (2019). Fake news on Twitter during the 2016 US presidential election. Science, 363(6425), 374-378.
  10. Tsfati, Y., Boomgaarden, H. G., Strömbäck, J., Vliegenthart, R., Damstra, A., & Lindgren, E. (2020). Causes and consequences of mainstream media dissemination of fake news: literature review and synthesis. Annals of the International Communication Association, 44(2), 157-173.

Any time you write about misinformation and disinformation, the mere fact of casting a spotlight on it will amplify it a bit. There’s no way to avoid it.

Matthew Rosenberg (The New York Times), When does reporting become a megaphone for disinformation?, First Draft (2019)