New report tracks 6.6 million tweets to fake and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the 2016 U.S. presidential election

Press Release

October 4, 2018

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More than 80 percent of misinformation accounts active during the 2016 election campaign are still active today

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oct. 4, 2018 – How did misinformation spread during the 2016 presidential election and has anything changed since? A new study of more than 10 million tweets from 700,000 Twitter accounts that linked to more than 600 misinformation and conspiracy news outlets answers this question, revealing that the concentrated “fake news” ecosystem active during the 2016 election is still in place today. 

The study, one of the largest to date on this topic, was commissioned by Knight Foundation and produced by Matthew Hindman of The George Washington University in collaboration with Vlad Barash of the network analysis firm Graphika. Knight supported the study to improve understanding of how misinformation spreads online. 

The report highlights more than 6.6 million tweets linking to fake news and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the 2016 election. The problem persisted in the aftermath of the election with 4 million tweets to fake and conspiracy news publishers found from mid-March to mid-April 2017. 

More than 80 percent of accounts that repeatedly spread misinformation during the 2016 election campaign are still active, and they continue to publish more than a million tweets on a typical day.

The study includes detailed maps of the networks of accounts that spread misinformation. These show the structural relationships between accounts that link to sites identified as “fake and conspiracy news,” and illustrate how specific stories and hashtags are shared. Network analysis identifies a dense “disinformation supercluster” containing thousands of accounts that repeatedly post links to fake and conspiracy news.

“Our democracy relies on access to news and information we can trust. Right now, the discussion about misinformation online is based on anxiety and conventional wisdom. That’s not good enough,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. “What we need is hard research on the complexity and scale of the issue. This report is one step in that process.”

The report further explores the role that coordinated trolls and automated accounts, or “bots”, play in the spread of misinformation. Specifically, it raises new questions about the extent to which foreign actors, such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency, may have been involved in these practices.

The data also shows organized efforts by trolls or automated accounts, to push content related to the so-called Pizzagate falsehood, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and documents shared by WikiLeaks, among other examples.

Important findings include: 

  • There was a concentrated “fake news” ecosystem highly active both during and after the 2016 election: The study linked more than 6.6 million tweets to fake news and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the 2016 election. The problem continued after the election with 4 million tweets to fake and conspiracy news publishers found from mid-March to mid-April 2017. 
  • “Fake news” and disinformation continue to reach millions: More than 80 percent of accounts that repeatedly spread misinformation during the 2016 election campaign are still active. They continue to publish more than a million tweets on a typical day.
  • Just a few fake and conspiracy news sites accounted for most of the fake news that spread on Twitter: Sixty-five percent of fake and conspiracy news links during the election went to just the 10 largest sites. The list of top misinformation outlets was largely stable before and after the 2016 election. 
  • Most of the accounts spreading fake or conspiracy news included in the report show evidence of automated posting: Thirty-three percent of the 100 most-followed accounts in the report’s post-election map – and more than 60 percent of a random sample of all accounts – show evidence of automated activity.    
  • Fake news still receives significantly fewer links than mainstream media sources: Fake news sites received about 13 percent of the Twitter links that a comparison set of national news outlets did, and 37 percent of the links received by a set of regional newspapers.
  • Accounts that spread fake news are densely connected: Both the election-eve and post-election maps of accounts that spread fake or conspiracy news reveal an ultra-dense core of accounts that follow each other. As such, fake news that reaches the core has countless paths to spread.
  • A substantial amount of misinformation was spread by both Republican- and Democratic-identified accounts: While a majority of “fake news” came from pro-Republican and pro-Trump accounts in the month before the election, smaller but still substantial amounts of fake news was spread by liberal or Democratic-identified accounts. After the election period, left-leaning fake news decreased much more than right-leaning fake news. 
  • The coordinated spread of misinformation by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) trolls is evident — but other accounts were likely more important in spreading fake news: Of the more than 2,700 IRA accounts named publicly when the research was conducted, 65 are included in at least one of the report’s maps. These accounts include several that were widely quoted in U.S. media, such as @WarfareWW, @TEN_GOP and @Jenn_Abrams. Content with similar messaging was however tweeted by many other accounts with far more followers than top IRA trolls, as well as by still-active accounts that are likely automated. 

This report forms a key part of Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, which aims to strengthen the role of strong, trusted journalism as essential to a healthy democracy. In September 2017, Knight Foundation announced $2.5 million in support to launch the initiative.

For more findings and to read the full report visit: https://kf.org/misinfo.


About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.


Contact:

Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2646, [email protected]