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Study finds older people, Republicans more likely to share coronavirus misinformation on Twitter

Coronavirus testing this week in Lynn
Coronavirus testing this week in LynnPat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A new study led by researchers at Northeastern University finds that older people and Republicans are more likely to post coronavirus-related tweets with links to fake news sites.

The study also found that the fake news domain that was shared the most in the tweets was Gateway Pundit, which throughout the pandemic “has received an order of magnitude more shares than even the second most popular fake news domain.”

The study was based on tweets posted between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 by over a half-million registered American voters.

It found that the vast majority of the links people tweeted about coronavirus were to reliable websites, but just over 1 percent were to sites researchers had in previous studies identified as fake news publishers.

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The research was the product of a collaboration centered at the Lazer Lab at the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University. The team included researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Cornell, Rutgers, University at Buffalo, New York University, and Ben-Gurion University.

The study highlights “the particular demographics and particular corners of our society where fake news and misinformation is much more prevalent,” said David Lazer, a political science and computer science professor who heads the Lazer Lab.

“During the 2016 election ... many researchers and journalists alike failed to track the weaponization of misinformation on social media, leaving them to retroactively discover which demographics had been most active in sharing fake news after the election had taken place. It is important to understand in real time which parts of the population are sharing fake news on Twitter,” the study said.

Among the study findings: The number of fake news links shared over the study period varied from as high as nearly 2 per capita for Republicans and independents over 65 to zero and 0.01 per capita for 18-to-29-year-old Democrats and independents, respectively.

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The study looked at more than 7 million coronavirus-related tweets that contained a link. Lazer said researchers believe the sample of users was “reasonably representative” of all Twitter users in the United States.

Lazer said the sharing of fake news sites on Twitter was “not massive,” but at the same time, “it’s not nothing.”

Researchers noted that in previous studies they had found that older people were less likely to believe coronavirus misinformation and said their new finding posed a “seeming paradox” that merited future research.

“Older people are more likely to share misinformation and less likely to believe it,” said Lazer. “Sharing does not equal believing. That’s the puzzle that I’m looking at next.

Another interesting finding, he said, was the prominence of Gateway Pundit, which “seems to be doing exceptionally well.”

He said it wasn’t clear why, but it may have simply been “they may have seen a market niche early ... and cornered the market" in fake news about the coronavirus.

The study was part of a series issued by The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States. Researchers have made their data available to the public in an online dashboard.




Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.