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What does this Pew study on fake news actually mean?

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The Pew Research Center is one of the most reputable sources for data on how Americans use and think about technology. Its work is also a great example of how difficult interpreting statistics can be. According to Pew, almost a quarter of Americans have admitted to sharing fake news, a third say they “often” come across made-up political stories, and about two-thirds say the phenomenon has caused “a great deal of confusion” about current events. Is this good? Bad? It’s hard to say.

In a new survey, Pew asked around 1,000 US adults about their opinions on made-up or inaccurate online news. Fifty-one percent of the respondents said they “often” encountered political news that was not fully accurate, and 32 percent said they often found news that was “completely made up.” Conversely, 19 percent said they “hardly ever/never” saw inaccurate news, and 26 percent said the same about made-up news. Most people believed that they could recognize made-up news, regardless of age, gender, income, race, or political party; overall, 84 percent were “somewhat” or “very” confident in their abilities.

Overall, 64 percent of people said “completely made-up news” had caused a great deal of confusion about “the basic facts of current events.” Twenty-four percent said it had caused “some,” and 11 percent said it had caused little to none.

Pew Research Center fake news survey

At the same time, a significant portion of people had shared made-up news. A total of 23 percent admitted to sharing a political story they knew was fake at the time, one that they later discovered was fake, or both. (Overall, 14 percent of people had done the former, and 16 percent the latter.) But as Pew emphasizes, there are some obvious limitations. The survey doesn’t ask why people knowingly shared fake stories, and whether they were intentionally misleading ones or clear satire like The Onion. And it can’t identify people who either over-estimate their own savviness or fail to spot fake news.

“Fake news” is a broad term that can cover satire, propaganda, conspiracy theories, sensationalism, and almost any given news story with a political bent. Since the election, though, it’s become a popular buzzword and a major issue for social networks. Facebook, in fact, just enlisted a handful of fact-checking sites to flag hoaxes.

People think politicians and elected officials, members of the public, and social networking sites all bear significant responsibility for fake news. Americans over 50 are significantly more likely to place responsibility on the government, but otherwise, the numbers don’t change much by demographic — although most people named only one or two groups, not all three, responsible.

Pew Research Center fake news chart

This survey doesn’t really tell us much about how common different forms of online misinformation are. It doesn’t tell us about their effects, how savvy we are at detecting them, or even how people define misleading or made-up news. But it does give us a sense of how Americans feel about this touchy subject — and who they’re likely to put pressure on for change.