This study looks into young adults and fake news. We used an online survey to ask University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) students questions about adult’s recognition, knowledge and identification of fake news. We then used these variables to determine to what extent college students viewed fake news being an issue or not. We found that these factors did indeed play a role on their experiences and that people who have more knowledge and are better at identifying fake news, seem to think that it is more of an issue than those who do not. Exposure is the variable that played a minor role since almost everyone having been exposed to it did not necessarily believe misinformation.
In today’s world of innovative technology, social media has become a highly used resource for both news and entertainment. Within the past two years, the term “fake news” has become a term widely used when there is a disagreement between a variety of media sources. According to Time Magazine (2017) fake news is being added to the dictionary. It is defined as false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc. Currently, almost 67% of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media, and 78% of those Americans are between the ages of 18–49 (Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel, & Shearer, 2016).
The difference in getting news from social media and other sources such as newspapers or television is the timeliness of the events. In today’s world, we are likely to view nearly any event in real time due to the rapid sharing of information across social media platforms. Sharing can be a central concept of networked culture (Kennedy, 2011). Because of the spreading of information through sharing within social media networks, we can see how receiving news from social media is more beneficial for many people in America. However, this opens the door for many sources of fake news to spread false information into the minds of its readers.
The problem with fake news being spread throughout social media is that the information released acts as gatekeepers by selecting which content to release by framing (Rodríguez, 2017). According to Entman (1993), framing theory is “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such ways to promote a problem definition, casual interpretation, moral evaluation”. By framing social media, news outlets can pick and choose what they deem relevant to publish. Thus, leading to some news being referred to as fake news, and others as real news.
This study will explore the effects of framing through sources of fake news and real news as they are expressed on social media. In today’s culture where 67% of Americans receive their news from social media sites, it is crucial to conduct studies that will help further the spread of factually based knowledge on social media (Rodriguez, 2017). Study results will show the relationship between the knowledge, identification, and exposure, as it relates to the feeling of fake news being an issue in our society.
In 2016, in the United States as Election Day approached, “fake news” gained growing public interest. It was at this time that people googled the term more than they have in the past 15 months (Google Trends, 2017). “Fake news are articles that are intentionally and verifiably false and could mislead readers” (Allcott, H, & Gentzkow, M., 2017). Fake news is written, published and disseminated to sway public opinion. It is in many cases that have an angle that is to the far right (Allcott, H, & Gentzkow, M., 2017). With an increase in the fake news comes an army of journalists who are trying to debunk falsely reported news content. Large news organizations such as BBC have started to cover stories on popular news articles that are shared throughout social media. They intend to prove to people what stories are true and which are false. What we know about fake news is that it is predominantly based on anecdotal evidence (Vargo, C. J., Guo, L., & Amazeen, M. A., 2017). Since the invention of the internet, there has been a rise in so-called citizen journalism. A type of journalism that allows anyone with internet access to create and share stories that are important to them. The problem with such news coverage is their lack of experience in the journalism field. Such citizens can incorrectly cover a news story. It is typically editorial staff that plays a key role in what to cover and play the important role of gatekeeping. It is so influential that news media is often recognized as the fourth estate. It is the internet that has been increasingly changing this fourth estate. Although many researchers have been looking into what fake news is, there is little information on what generation is affected by such news. Using surveys, interviews and content analysis, we will explore the influence fake news has on different age groups.
Chris J Vargo explains in his article The Agenda-Setting Power of Fake News how fake news is also affecting traditional news medium. The original theory looks at what topics trend in the news and how that affects the opinions of audiences (Vargo, C. J., Guo, L., & Amazeen, M. A., 2017). Whether the news is fake or real, both can result in agenda-setting. Early studies on agenda-setting emphasize that agenda-setting is not limited to news and audiences. It was suggested that elite media organizations influence smaller media organizations. The literature by Vargo shows how the New York Times and Washington Post often set the agenda of newspapers (Vargo, C. J., Guo, L., & Amazeen, M. A., 2017 p.3). There is, however, research that confirms how the rising popularity of fake news on the internet can have the ability to set the agenda for other news outlets. Fake news has had influences in how mainstream news mediums cover fake news. Some fake news stories get so many readers that the mainstream media must address it. This was the example in 2016 with the “Pizzagate” story. After a news story that got so much coverage on social media that it drove one citizen to do some investigating. Edgar Welch drove from his home in North Carolina to Washington D.C. to rescue a so-called child-trafficking ring (Fisher, M., Cox, J. W., & Hermann, P., 2016). What was false was the rumors that he had read on the internet. Welch drove to the pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pont with an assault rifle. It was then when mainstream media picked up the story. With Welch’s actions that set the agenda on how fake news has become an issue worth addressing.
Since the mid-20th century, journalists have played the “watchdog” protecting the public from corruption and government. According to Regina Marchi, this ideal has eroded in the past decades as a result of the changing news industry (p.247). With massive budget cuts newsrooms have seen better days. Along with these cuts, there are only so much they can cover. Newsrooms have seen dwindling areas such as fact-checking, and independent research. Without these important roles in the news rooms, there is little effort to look into how the internet has produced false news reports. With a variety of sources that people get news from it is important to understand what those sources are. Now more than ever there are social media sites that allow individuals to connect with friends, family and the larger world. It is fair to say that most people get their news from their social media sites (Marchi, 2012). Six out of ten ‘millennials’ received their news from Facebook in a given week (Mitch, Gottfried & Matsa, 2015). These developments in news media would not have happened without the erosion of journalism. It is these new and free niche websites that have damaged news media.
Other issues involving fake news is how they are designed to look like websites of legit news organizations. As Abby Ohlheiser explains, fake news sites increasingly are used in misleading advertising and other internet fraud (2016). There is much profit to be made when fake news articles gain attention. The money comes from ads. Paul Horner, a Facebook-focused-fake-news writer, told the Huffington Post that he would make $10,000 a month from ads (Ohlheiser, 2016). Provided by the self-service ad companies such as Google and Facebook. There was enough evidence during the 2016 election that had many critics blaming social media sites are not doing enough to stop such news articles. It was after the election that enough attention on fake news prompted Facebook to crack down on fake news.
After America’s 2016 election many criticized social media outlets for allowing fake news stories to go viral. Since then, Facebook has taken other steps to fight the spread of misinformation (Yurieff, n.d.). In January, Facebook launched its “Journalism Project” aiming to remove stories that were false or inaccurate. Facebook has hit fake news sources in the wallet by limiting spammers’ access to buying ads that would aid their operations (Balmas, 2012, p.438). They also said they have improved literacy among its readers. The company is teaching users how to identify misleading articles better. Such seminars have been at Arizona State’s school of journalism and other journalism schools across the country. The website has also partnered with third-party fact checkers that warns users of articles that include “disputed content.” (Allcott, H, & Gentzkow, M., 2017). Facebook is not the only source of fake news.
Fake news is also a genre that can be watched, such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a show that uses political satire (Holbert, 2005a). Writers for the show focused mainly on the artificiality of elected officials. Political figures in such shows are portrayed mainly as dishonest, lecherous, or even dumb (Niven, Lichter. & Amundson, 2003; Sarver, 2004). Political humor and satirical references were seen as having limited consequences. Until research by Nir & Mutz, have gained insight on possible effects on public perceptions (2010). Numerous studies that included exposure to late-night and/or fake news during an election can shape viewers’ perceptions of the candidates (Young, 2004). Further research has shown exposure can even lead to a lack of political trust (Baumgartner & Morris, 2006; Tsfati et al., 2009).
It is socially valuable when people can understand the real state of the world around them. Thus, it is important to comprehend when a source is real or fake. A large area that has not been explored in the area of fake news is who are the most prone to believing such articles. A lack of information in this area prompts my research questions.
Research Question 1: Do individuals in the U.S. perceive fake news to be an issue?
Research Question 2: What factors contribute to an individual’s perception of weather fake News is an issue?
Once we crafted our research questions, we set two objectives. Our first objective was to determine whether or not and to what extent college students think of fake news as an issue. If yes, the second objective was to determine what factors or variables are the ones that contribute to students’ perceptions. The variables we used included demographics, exposure, identification, knowledge, behavior and attitudes of our sample.
The sample of our study are currently enrolled college students who attend the University of Illinois at Chicago. This study is accessible to all college students who are age 18 and over attending this 4-year institution, Participants must have access to an internet connection as a requirement.
The method of data collection for this study consisted of Internet web page surveys, specifically through convenience and snowball sampling. This kind of sampling allowed us to reach a large population of students. Conducting our research with an online questionnaire served to our advantage because this way it did not cost us much money to craft it via Qualtrics. Our web survey was also immediately accessible and allowed each respondent to input their own data and responses so that they were stored electronically. We did not have a time limit, which allowed participants to complete the survey at their own pace. Since one of our main goals was to discover and analyze perceptions, the fact that web surveys requires no interviewer served to our advantage as well. Respondents are more willing to share personal information when they are not directly disclosing that information with another person. Interviewers can also influence the responses that participants give depending on the structure of questions and we tried to prevent as many biases as possible.
The survey was shared via internet with other students and those students were also able to share the survey link with fellow peers or classmates. Since all participants are required to have an internet connection, it was only appropriate to use web surveys. With a stable connection, participants were allowed to access the web surveys on public or personal computers, smartphones or tablets.
After we decided on our instrument, we came up with a total of 23 questions and turned them into a survey. We distributed the survey online to fellow students in our classes, and by posting the survey onto Facebook. The questions were then categorized by variables, and we were able to start interpreting and understanding the data from there.
This study collected data from college students at least 18 years old, by conducting a convenience sample and using the snowball sampling method we were able to collect 97 completed surveys between November 30th, 2017 and December 4th 2017. Our sample (N=97) was collected using a convenience sample, by collecting data at UIC we were most likely able to get a diverse sample due to its diverse student population.
To measure the variables in our survey we used frequency and quantity common response questions to gather information from our participants. The first piece of information requested how often do they use social media, there were 7 possible answers with the smallest amount being “once a month”, and the most being “11+ times a day”. The next 2 questions asked about fake news and its accuracy, along with a follow up question asking how often they believe they come across news stories that they believe are fake. The variables were measured on a scale of 1=Once a Month to 4=11+ Times a Day, (M=5.91, SD=1.34). With fake news being a new idea, there was no data to compare this too.
Being able to identify fake news was obtained by asking the question if they are sure in their ability to identify if fake news is made up on a scale of 1=Not at all sure to 4=Very sure (M=3.35, SD=.878). This question was asked to understand if they participants can identify fake news, then how confident in themselves are they in this ability.
The following variables were indicators of whether a participant was able to accurately define fake news from definitions (82% accurately defined fake news), been exposed to news stories that are not fully accurate (92.8% have been exposed), believing that fake news is an issue (90.7% believe fake news is an issue), and could correctly identify outlets that produce fake news (66.7% correctly identified fake news outlets). We used the number of correct responses out of the total number of responses for each specific instance to present our results.
Demographic variables were gathered, including gender (63.9% Female, 36.1% Male); age using a scale of 1–5, 1=18–19 to 5=26+ (M=2.14, SD= .878); and race -
African-American (17.5%), Asian/Pacific Islander (12.4%), Hispanic or Latino (30.9%), White (37.1%), and Other (2.1%).
To test both of our research questions, we conducted a regression analysis. The independent variables were organized in the following blocks: demographics, exposure, identification knowledge, behavior, and attitudes. We were then able to look at the tables and create charts to better organize our data and help us interpellate from it.
Characteristics of College Students, Fake News Exposure and Knowledge
Standard Deviation (SD)
Hispanic or Latino
Margin of Error
What is your Age
How do you Identify
How often do you use social media
When asking our participants to define fake news, 82% of respondents could correctly define fake news.
92.8% of participants said that they have been exposed to news stories that are not fully accurate.
Approximately two thirds of participants can accurately identify which examples of news outlets were fake.
The main sections of our research where we found limitations were in the sample and the fact that we gathered our data from an online survey. In regards to the sample, there is limited respondent availability since there was only a total size of 97 participants and very little diversity. Because we were asking our peers to take the survey, most of them were Communication majors, and around the same age range. They were also all in the same university so the educational diversity is very slim. It is much more difficult to draw a sample based on e-mail addresses or social media handles. The fact that there was also no interviewer meant that we could not receive in-depth responses from our participants. There was no way for us to ask participants directly for their reasoning of their responses.
There were also limitations in the method that we selected to retrieve our data, the web survey. We were unable to ask open-ended questions because of the survey set up, so the answers we got were mostly superficial, and we could not ask follow ups. Also, by using an online survey, we were not getting enough information from people who do not have internet access, or who did not have access during the time that our survey was available. Although that is a smaller limitation because according to Pew Research, 84% of United States adults had access to the internet in 2015.
The issue of survey fraud could be a factor in our research because there is no way to verify who is taking the survey, or if they are answering honestly. Although we did preface that the survey was for UIC students only, and we got rid of the data from anyone who too less than four minutes to complete the survey in order to reduce this fraud.
Conclusions & Contributions
According to our results, our sample demographics consisted of a majority of females. 63.9% of our sample were females and 36.1% were male. We collected a variety of different race groups. White (37.1%) and Hispanic or Latinos (30.9%) consisted of the largest groups in our sample followed by African Americans (17.5%) and Asians (12.4%). Based on the answers that respondents gave when answering the questionnaire, we discovered that 82% of the entire sample were able to correctly define fake news and 18% were not. Of our sample, 92.8% of the sample claimed to have been exposed to fake news in the past by reading an article that was not entirely accurate while 9% had never read an article with false information, In our web survey, we presented respondents with 3 news organizations or outlets. Participants were responsible for determining which news organization delivered fake news to its audience. Of our sample, 72% were able to do so correctly while 28% were not.
Based on our findings, we see that fake news is definitely an issue that is rising now more than ever along with the rise of technology. Misinformation is about the intention of the distributor. Today distributors are presenting all kinds of false information from rumors to propaganda. Distributors are able to be more strategic when delivering false news since the rise of technology makes it easy for them to do so. The harm in this process of distribution is the effects that it has on people. False news are able to cause people to change their behaviors quickly. Those misperceptions then spread through social networks and even more so when people are constantly sharing it over and over. In other words, the internet is a world we created that allows others to spread false information.
Our sample currently consists of only college students, which are receiving an education that aids in their understanding of fake news and the effects. Based on our results, we see that the majority of our sample understands what fake news is and what kinds of organizations are reliable for news information and which others are not. However, our study also suggests that there are many more people who need to be educated and informed about this issue because it is not only college students that are being exposed to it via social media platforms. All kinds of people are susceptible to misinformation. As much as the internet has developed new ways to create or share false information, it also has the tools needed to debunk it. It is important that people appropriately use online tools for fact or photo checking constantly to be able to detect fake news.
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