February 1, 2018

Fake news reaches less people online than most assume, according to a new factsheet published Thursday by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In one of the first quantifications of fake news in Europe, the authors found that, in France and Italy, users generally spend less time on selected fake news websites than they do on those of genuine media outlets.

None of the false news websites we considered had an average monthly reach of over 3.5% in 2017, with most reaching less than 1% of the online population in both France and Italy. By comparison, the most popular news websites in France (Le Figaro) and Italy (La Repubblica) had an average monthly reach of 22.3% and 50.9%, respectively.

And that lack of reach translates into lower visits for fake news sites. Mainstream news organizations accrue significantly more time spent on their stories by comparison, according to data from from comScore and CrowdTangle.

The most popular false news websites in France were viewed for around 10 million minutes per month, and for 7.5 million minutes in Italy. People spent an average of 178 million minutes per month with Le Monde, and 443 million minutes with La Repubblica — more than the combined time spent with all 20 false news sites in each sample.

However, on Facebook, the situation is a little less clear. Researchers found that the interactions — defined as “total number of comments, shares and reactions” — generated by a small number of fake news met or exceeded those generated by the most popular news brands in France and Italy. (This echoes anecdotal findings by Pagella Politica in Italy and BuzzFeed in Germany.)

But that’s not to say that mainstream news organizations like Le Monde and La Repubblica generate less Facebook engagement than fake news sites.

In France, one false news outlet generated an average of over 11 million interactions per month — five times greater than more established news brands. However, in most cases, in both France and Italy, false news outlets do not generate as many interactions as established news brands.

Taken as a whole, the report’s findings suggest that fake news is a challenge but not a mortal threat. While engaging on Facebook, fake news stories generally don’t reach as many people as fact-based reporting does and, when they do find an audience, it doesn’t necessarily translate into time spent on those sites.

The report, which was written by Richard Fletcher, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, analyzed popular fake news sites identified by fact-checking organizations. It comes a month after a similar study was published in the United States.

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
Daniel Funke

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