But now the first hard data on fake-news consumption has arrived. Researchers last week posted an analysis of the browsing histories of thousands of adults during the run-up to the 2016 election — a real-time picture of who viewed which fake stories, and what real news those people were seeing at the same time.
The reach of fake news was wide indeed, the study found, yet also shallow. One in four Americans saw at least one false story, but even the most eager fake-news readers — deeply conservative supporters of President Trump — consumed far more of the real kind, from newspaper and network websites and other digital sources.
While the research can’t settle the question of whether misinformation was pivotal in the 2016 election, the findings give the public and researchers the first solid guide to asking how its influence may have played out. That question will become increasingly important as online giants like Facebook and Google turn to shielding their users from influence by Russian operatives and other online malefactors.