Misinformation Spreads: 80% Came from a Few ‘Supersharers’ in 2020

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Two studies published Thursday in the journal Science provide evidence that misinformation on social media has a significant impact on public opinion. They also reveal that a small group of committed “supersharers,” mainly older Republican women, were responsible for most of the “fake news” during the studied period.

The studies, conducted by researchers from MIT, Ben-Gurion University, Cambridge, and Northeastern, were independently carried out but complement each other well.

The MIT study led by Jennifer Allen indicates that while misinformation is often cited as a reason for vaccine hesitancy in 2020 and beyond, the phenomenon remains under-documented. This is partly because the vast and complex data from social media platforms and the companies’ reluctance to participate in studies that could portray them negatively complicate documentation efforts.

The study first shows that exposure to vaccine misinformation in 2021 and 2022 (the period when data was collected) reduces people’s intent to get vaccinated. Past studies indicate that intent correlates with actual vaccination behavior.

Additionally, the study found that articles flagged by moderators as misinformation had a greater effect on vaccine hesitancy compared to non-flagged content. However, the volume of unflagged misinformation was significantly greater, suggesting its overall impact was more substantial.

This type of misinformation often came from major news outlets posting misleading information. For instance, the Chicago Tribune headline “A healthy doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID vaccine; CDC is investigating why” was misleading and viewed around 55 million times—much more than flagged materials, despite lacking evidence linking the vaccine to the doctor’s death.

Figures showing the volume of non-flagged misinformation vastly outweighing flagged stories.
Image Credits: Allen et al.

“This conflicts with the common wisdom that fake news on Facebook was responsible for low U.S. vaccine uptake,” Allen told Truth Voices. “It may be that Facebook usership correlates with lower vaccine uptake, but the ‘gray area’ content—rather than obviously false information—could be driving this effect.”

The study suggests that tackling blatantly false information, while helpful, has a limited impact on the overall misinformation landscape that social media users experience.

So, who were the primary spreaders of this misinformation? Although this was beyond the scope of Allen’s study, a second study provides insights.

The second study, conducted by a multi-university group, concluded that 2,107 registered U.S. voters were responsible for spreading 80% of the “fake news” during the 2020 election.

The researchers analyzed the activity of 664,391 voters who were active Twitter users, identifying a small subset responsible for most of the false and misleading information. These 2,107 users had an outsized influence in spreading political fake news, affecting one in 20 American voters. About 7% of all political news was linked to misleading sites, with 80% of these links coming from this small group.

These “supersharers” were not bots or state-sponsored actors but individuals manually and persistently retweeting content. Co-author Nir Grinberg noted that while bot detection tools were used, these users did not appear automated.

Comparing supersharers to other user sets, the study found that these fake news spreaders were typically older, female, white, and overwhelmingly Republican.

Figure showing the demographics of supersharers (purple) with others (grey, whole panel; yellow, non-fake news sharers; magenta, ordinary fake news sharer).
Image Credits: Baribi-Bartov et al.

Supersharers were 60% female compared to an even split in the general panel, and they were slightly more likely to be white. However, they were significantly older (58 on average versus 41) and predominantly Republican (65% versus 28%).

The demographics reveal a lot, but it’s important to note that millions, not just 2,107, retweeted the Chicago Tribune article. The Science comment article points out that supersharers include various individuals such as political pundits, media personalities, contrarians, and antivaxxers with different motives for spreading untrustworthy content.

As Baribi-Bartov et al. conclude, “These findings highlight a vulnerability of social media for democracy, where a small group of people distort the political reality for many.”

Margaret Mead’s saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world,” comes to mind. However, this might not be the change she envisioned.

Devin Coldewey
Devin Coldewey
Devin Coldewey is a Seattle-based writer and photographer. He first wrote for TechCrunch in 2007. Devin covers many topics in technology, science, and space. In the past, he has written for MSNBC.com, NBC News, DPReview, and others. He has also appeared on radio, television, and in print.

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