“Fake News” Audiences are Small and Disloyal


The audience for “fake news” is small and disloyal, according to a study of online traffic in New Media & Society.  “The role of audience availability in fake news consumption” by Jacob Nelson and Harsh Taneja compares online traffic to established news websites and “fake news” websites in the months leading up to and following the 2016 US presidential election.

Although other studies have shown that “fake news” audiences are smaller than many assumed, this is the first study to provide a theoretical explanation – audience availability –  to explain why “fake news” audiences are small. Audience availability refers to the amount of time the audience has to engage with media. The authors argue that “fake news” audiences comprise a group of heavy internet users, who have more time to engage with a wider range of media. Light internet users, with less time to spend on media, tend to be more loyal in their consumption of established or popular media.

The biggest name products tend to “naturally monopolize” light users, while the more obscure offerings attract heavy users that have the time to invest in a variety of offerings, and the awareness of their existence to begin with (Elberse, 2008, p. 93). Accordingly, studies have suggested that most internet users stick to popular news sources, regardless of ideology, while a minority of omnivorous heavy users consume ideologically extreme sources in addition to popular content (Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2011; Guess 2016).  … Even in a media environment where news consumption has grown increasingly “incidental” and mediated by social media platforms (Fletcher & Nielsen, 2017a, 2017b), those with more availability will still likely be exposed to news from a wider variety of sources, while those with less availability will likely continue to consume news from the most popular sources.

To test this, the authors compared audiences for “fake news” and established news in terms of size, level of engagement, and overall online usage. They selected 24 established news websites reflecting a national focus on US politics (e.g. CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed) and 30 “fake news” websites drawn from the OpenSources project.

The results indicate that established news websites attracted on average 28 million unique visitors per month in contrast to 675,000 visitors for “fake news” websites. In terms of engagement, audiences spend on average twice as much time on established news websites than on “fake news” websites and most visitors to “fake news” websites also visit established news websites.

These findings suggest that “fake news” audiences are not locked into ideological “echo chambers”, but are unswayed by real news. “This suggests that real news is failing to function as a corrective for the misperceptions perpetuated by fake news”, Nelson and Taneja conclude.

“The role of audience availability in fake news consumption” was published in New Media & Society. A draft version of the article is available from the Social Science Research Network’s eLibrary (open access).