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Small Groups Spread Large Percentages of Online Falsehoods, Studies Find

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A small group of social media users spread most of the fake news that circulated in 2020, TechCrunch reports. Published in the journal Science, separate studies by researchers at MIT, Ben-Gurion University, Cambridge and Northeastern University found that many of the falsehoods that social media users spread regarding COVID vaccines and the 2020 election originated on mainstream news sites.

The MIT study, led by Jennifer Allen, says misinformation caused COVID-vaccine hesitancy in 2020 and beyond. TechCrunch reports that big news outlets often published misleading information about vaccine risks or studies. The tech-news site mentions an article from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune on April 8, 2021, with the headline: “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why.”

As NPR would later report, the Sun Sentinel article was factual. The original story noted that there had not been any links found between the vaccine and the Miami doctor’s death. However, the headline, which some found misleading, was viewed about 55 million times.

In the second study, researchers concluded that approximately 2,100 U.S. voters spread 80% of the fake news during the 2020 election on Twitter (now known as X). According to TechCrunch, the social media users who spread misinformation about vaccines and the election were “older, women, white and overwhelmingly Republican.”

But as a perspective piece published recently in Science points out, related research has indicated that these “super sharers” of falsehoods “are diverse, including political pundits, media personalities, contrarians and antivaxxers with personal, financial and political motives for spreading untrustworthy content.”

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