Social media has become one of the leading sources of news and information in the United States. The Reuters Digital News Report from 2017 showed that 71 percent of US respondents are on Facebook and 48 percent use the social media website for news. Since social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook play a central role in public life, they have become a target of propaganda and disinformation campaigns.
Who is more likely to consume and share fake news stories on social media: left wingers or right wingers, liberals or conservatives, Trump supporters or Democrats, libertarians or authoritarians? Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have made an effort to answer that question.
Vidya Narayanan, Vlad Barash, John Kelly, Bence Kollanyi, Lisa-Maria Neudert, and Phil Howard, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, analyzed social media activity of American Facebook and Twitter users for three months. On February 6 they published a study titled “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US.”
A seed of known propaganda websites was used in the study, drawing from a sample of 22,117,221 tweets collected during the Presidential election. Using similar methodology, researchers mapped public Facebook pages, which resulted in a dataset of 47,719 of them. The Twitter dataset used in this study contains 13,477 Twitter users collected during a 90-day period. The dataset of Facebook pages was reduced to 10,691 pages. The researchers collected all posts from the 90 days between October 20, 2017 and January 19, 2018.
“Adding to reports about foreign influence campaigns, there is increasing evidence of a rise in polarization in the US news landscape in response to the 2016 election. Trust in news is strikingly divided across ideological lines, and an ecosystem of alternative news is flourishing, fueled by extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news,” they wrote.
Furthermore, researchers added, highly-personalized social media algorithms — software mechanisms that select what information to show based on user behavior and preferences — contribute to social polarization. In other words, consumption of biased news is as much of a driver as it is a result of social polarization in the United States.
Researchers define sources of fake news as outlets which “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news about politics, economics or culture. This content includes various forms of extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, fake news and other forms of junk news.”
For a news source to be labeled as fake news, it has to, according to study authors, fall in at least three of the following five criteria.
- Lack of transparency and accountability: Fake news outlets lack accountability and transparency, don’t publish corrections on debunked information, and refrain from providing real information about their editors, publishers, or owners.
- Distinct style: Fake news outlets use hyperbole, rely on emotionally-driven language and ad hominem attacks, make generalizations, use misleading titles, integrate moving images and memes into their content.
- Hyper-partisan reporting: Fake news and propaganda outlets frequently present opinion and commentary as news, and the reporting in such outlets is hyper-partisan and ideologically skewed.
- Use of untrustworthy sources: These outlets use untrustworthy sources, rely on false information, and refrain from fact-checking.
- Professional news media mimicking: Junk and fake news media outlets counterfeit fonts, branding and visual style of professional news media.
Twitter Fake News
Since social media platforms differ in structure and have their own unique attributes, researchers clustered Twitter users based on follower-following relationships, as opposed to grouping them based on tweet-retweet relationships. This, they assert, yields more stable Twitter communities.
Twitter users were grouped into categories based on their ideologies. These categories include: Conservative Media, Democratic Party, Local News, Mainstream, Party Politics, Progressive Movement, Republican Party, Resistance, Trump Support, and Other.
“The Trump Support Group has a coverage of 96%, indicating that those pages share the widest range of junk sources on Twitter. This is followed by the Conservative Media Group, with a coverage of 95%. The Trump Support group, with a consistency score of 55%, contributes more to the spreading of junk news, compared to all other groups put together,” researchers concluded.
Facebook Fake News
Facebook users were clustered into the following ideological groups, by following the same procedure that was used in the Twitter dataset: Conspiracy, Democratic Party, Environmental Movement, Hard Conservative, Libertarians, Military Guns, Occupy, Public Health, Republican Party, Sustainable Farming, Women’s Rights, Other Left, and Other Non-Political.
“The Hard Conservatives Group has a coverage score of 91%, followed by the Military and Guns Group at 45% and then the Conspiracy Group and Democrats Group at 40%. The Hard Conservatives Group also has a consistency score of 58%, indicating that this group has a greater share in the distribution of junk news on Facebook,” researchers wrote.
In conclusion, the distribution of fake news is, according to this Oxford study, not evenly spread across the political spectrum, quite the opposite. On Twitter, Trump supporters share more fake news than all the other groups put together. When it comes to Facebook, however, the extreme right (the “Hard Conservative” group) shares and circulates more fake news than all the other Facebook audiences put together.