Despite a crackdown by social media firms, so-called “junk news” is spreading at a greater rate than in 2016 on social media ahead of the US midterm elections, according to researchers.
Oxford Internet Institute researchers concluded Facebook and Twitter remain filled with “extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary,” and other forms of “low-quality” news.
In analysing some 2.5 million tweets and 6,986 Facebook pages over a 30-day period, the study found less than five per cent of sources referenced on social media were from public agencies, experts or political candidates themselves.
“We found the proportion of junk news circulating over social media has increased in the US since 2016, with users sharing higher proportions of junk news than links to professional content overall,” the report said.
It added that “junk news once concentrated among President (Donald) Trump’s support base has now spread to include communities of mainstream political conservatives.”
Philip Howard, director of the institute and a study author, said the latest research did not seek to analyse how much of the content came from automated accounts or “bots,” or whether it was directed from foreign entities.
He noted “this style of producing junk news probably has a Russian origin,” adding, “that’s what the Russians used in the 2016 election, and now there are domestic sources copying that style.”
As part of the research, the authors created an online tool to allow anyone to follow and analyse low-quality news and posts.
Responding to the study, Twitter and Facebook questioned the conclusions and methods used by the researchers.
“We respect and appreciate strong independent research but we challenge some of the findings here,” a Twitter spokeswoman said.
Twitter said many of the sources cited in the study were “not foreign, not bots, and for the most part not coordinated. They are real people sharing news that reflects their views.”
Facebook pointed to other research suggesting a decline in misinformation.
“The conclusions drawn in this research shouldn’t be seen as the authority on this topic,” it said.
“The central takeaway of this study — that, ‘the proportion of junk news circulating over social media has increased since 2016’ — is actually based on data from Twitter and then applied to ‘social media’ more broadly.”
The Oxford researchers said that its definition of “junk” is based on specific criteria, including a lack of professional journalism practices, use of hyperbole or misleading headlines, and relying on untrustworthy sources of information. — AFP