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Oct. 26, 2020, 11:53 a.m.
Audience & Social

Older people and Republicans are most likely to share Covid-19 stories from fake news sites on Twitter

The far-right site The Gateway Pundit was by far was the most-shared fake news domain; in some months, its stories were shared almost as often as stories from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.

Since March, a group of scholars from Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern have been working to understand how social behaviors affect transmission of Covid-19. They’ve issued a series of reports over the months, and the most recent one is an analysis of nearly 30 million Covid-19-related tweets collected between January 1 and September 30, 2020, from over 500,000 registered U.S. voters.

The researchers found that a little over 1 percent of the URLs shared in the group of tweets linked to sites that “systematically” publish fake news.1 Sixty percent of the tweets linked to URLs from “known, reputable domains,” and 39.8% linked to “domains with unknown quality.”

Here are some of the findings:

Older registered voters (of all political orientations) shared more news overall, and also more stories from fake news sites.

Republicans over the age of 65 were the most likely to share stories about Covid-19 from fake and misleading sites. 5.3% of the URLs that they shared between January 1 and September 30 came from fake domains.

Older women were especially likely to share news from disreputable sites, Northeastern professor David Lazer said in a separate article about the data:

Researchers were curious about who was behind the sharing of bad information, not who was believing it. The average age of these so-called “super sharers” is 59, “considerably older than the average Twitter user,” Lazer says.

“In terms of the data, it’s disproportionately older women,” he says.

Even as they shared possible misinformation about Covid-19, older voters were less likely to believe it than younger voters. Previous research by this same consortium had found that “younger people, regardless of political orientation, are more likely to believe one of 11 pieces of Covid-19 misinformation when compared to older people.”

The far-right site The Gateway Pundit — which in the past has, for instance, identified the wrong person as the 2017 Las Vegas shooter and falsely reported that Hillary Clinton had a seizure on camera — was the most-shared misleading site. Not only did it greatly outperform the other fake news domains…

…but in some months it was almost as popular as reputable news sites: “In August and September respectively, The Gateway Pundit was ranked the 4th and 6th most shared domain [overall],” the researchers note. “In August, the only domains with more shares were The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.” The Gateway Pundit has White House press credentials and Trump has given it special treatment during briefings. Recent Covid-related headlines on The Gateway Pundit include “IT’S A SCAM: After 48,299 COVID-19 Cases at 37 US Universities — Only 2 Hospitalizations and ZERO Deaths — More Likely to Be Killed By a Dog,” “Despite President Trump Contracting China Coronavirus All Signs Are COVID-19 Is Dissipating,” and “New WHO Data Reveals Coronavirus Less Lethal than Last Three Major US Pandemics — And they Destroyed the Economy for This.”

You can explore the data yourself — and answer questions like “Which stories were shared most often by Florida residents in September?” — in the researchers’ Covid-19 tweets dashboard here.

  1. The researchers used the categorization system outlined here: “We labeled as ‘black’ a set of websites taken from preexisting lists of fake news sources constructed by fact-checkers, journalists, and academics who identified sites that published almost exclusively fabricated stories[…]To measure fake news more comprehensively, we labeled additional websites as ‘red’ or ‘orange’ via a manual annotation process of sites identified by as sources of questionable claims. Sites with a red label (e.g., spread falsehoods that clearly reflected a flawed editorial process, and sites with an orange label represented cases where annotators were less certain that the falsehoods stemmed from a systematically flawed process.” For the purposes of this study, the researchers identified only tweets linking to “black” or “red” sites as fake, but if they’d included “orange” sites too, “the percentage of shared fake news URLs increases to 1.8%.” []
Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 26, 2020, 11:53 a.m.
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