ELECTION INTEGRITYThe 2020 Election Saw Fewer People Clicking on Misinformation Websites: Study

By Melissa De Witte

Published 19 April 2023

Stanford scholars find a smaller percentage of Americans visited unreliable websites in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. election than in 2016 – which suggests mitigation and education efforts to identify misinformation are working.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, people appear to have become savvier in spotting misinformation online: clicks onto unreliable websites have declined, according to a new Stanfordstudy published April 13 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

According to prior research, some 44.3 percent of Americans visited websites during the 2016 U.S. election that repeatedly made false or misleading information. During the 2020 election, Stanford scholars saw that number drop by nearly half to 26.2 percent.

While these findings are promising, the scholars are cautious in interpreting the study’s results. Exposure even among fewer people can still have serious consequences, they noted in the paper. Extrapolating their results, the scholars estimated that nearly 68 million Americans made a total of 1.5 billion visits to untrustworthy websites during the 2020 election.

“Although we saw a serious reduction in the overall number of people exposed to misinformation on the web, misinformation remains a serious problem in the information ecosystem for some populations, especially older adults and diverse communities,” said Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and senior author of the study.

The scholars found that those who did visit websites touting false claims tended to be older and lean more to the right of the political spectrum, a finding consistent with 2016 data. They did however visit fewer untrustworthy websites and spend less time on them than they did in 2016.

How the Study Worked
The study builds on previous research conducted by Andrew Guess at Princeton University. In 2016, Guess compiled a list of some 490 untrustworthy websites that included pages that prominent researchers in the disinformation research community had previously identified, including Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow.

Here, Hancock, along with Stanford PhD students Ryan Moore and Ross Dahlke, augmented the list with an additional 1,240 unreliable domains from NewsGuard, an organization that rates the credibility of news and information websites. Their rankings are done manually by experienced journalists and editors who rigorously review and rank websites on a variety of criteria, including whether they repeatedly publish false content, issue corrections on errors in their reporting, and distinguish between news and opinion.