Photograph by Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
December 7, 2016

A new survey commissioned by BuzzFeed found that most people believed the “fake news” stories they got through Facebook. But the survey also showed something else interesting: Namely, that the vast majority of people don’t remember the news they get from Facebook at all—real or fake.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos, asked more than 3,000 people if they recalled seeing a random selection of six real and fake headlines. The stories chosen included one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump (untrue), one about the former head of the CIA endorsing Hillary Clinton (true), and nine other selected stories, both fake and real.

Those who took part in the survey included a mix of Clinton and Trump voters as well as those who said they didn’t vote. They were asked first if they remembered either seeing or hearing about a specific headline, and then whether they believed it was true or not.

The headline on the subsequent BuzzFeed story by media editor Craig Silverman was “Most Americans Who See Fake News Believe It, New Survey Says.”

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But as freelance journalist Marcy Wheeler pointed out in a blog post after the publication of the story, what the survey really showed was that most people couldn’t recall the headlines or news stories they were given, regardless of whether they were fake or real.

According to the detailed results of the Ipsos poll, only about 20% of the 3,000 or so people who were surveyed remembered any of the headlines.

So for the fake story about Trump being endorsed by the Pope, only 16% of the people who answered the survey remembered the story at all. Only 14% remembered a fake story about Trump sending his private plane to rescue some marines. And only 10% of those who were asked the question remembered a fake story about the director of the FBI putting a Trump sign on his lawn.

The story that had the highest recall was actually true: About 57% of the people surveyed remembered a story about Donald Trump saying he would refuse to take a salary as president.

While it’s true that 75% of the people who remembered fake news stories believed them, that ultimately amounts to a relatively tiny number. For the FBI director story, for example, only 8% of the people surveyed both remembered it and believed it, amounting to just 123 people out of a total of 1,809 who got that question in the survey.

As Wheeler notes, more people recalled the real news stories than they did the fake ones, and more people believed real news than believed fake news, with one exception (a true story that quoted Trump as saying he would protect LGBTQ citizens).

Facebook’s fake news problem is worse than it looks:

The idea that most people don’t remember the news they see on Facebook—and don’t trust much of what they do see—fits with previous research into people’s news consumption habits.

A study by the American Press Institute, for example, found that just 12% of those who get their news on Facebook (fb) said they trusted that information. Other studies have shown that most people come into contact with news on Facebook while they are in the process of doing other things, meaning it isn’t their main goal.

Fake news being distributed by Facebook is clearly still a problem, and it’s impossible to say how many people either believe it or share it anyway, or how this influences events such as the U.S. presidential election. But the BuzzFeed survey appears to show that even salacious fake news has very little impact on the majority of people who see it.

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