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Junk news dominating coverage of US midterms on social media, new research finds

Junk news dominating coverage of US midterms on social media, new research finds

Twenty-five per cent of content shared around US midterms is junk news, despite efforts by social media platforms to curb the problem.

Social media is now a vital platform for news consumption in the United States, particularly during important moments in political life such as elections, according to new Oxford University research.
A significant portion of US adults turn to social media platforms for news content. Given the importance of social media as a news channel, these platforms have become regular targets for coordinated efforts to spread misinformation and junk news with the aim of influencing voters.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, have discovered that the problem of junk news on Twitter and Facebook has become significantly worse in the lead-up to the US midterm elections, taking place on 6 November 2018. “The proportion of junk news in circulation has grown by 5 percentage points since the 2016 presidential elections,” says Professor Phil Howard, lead researcher on Oxford’s Computational Propaganda project. “We’re a little surprised by this finding. Facebook and Twitter have put some effort into trying to improve the quality of political news and information shared on the platforms, but it is not clear that their efforts are working.”

Approximately 25% of shared content related to the midterm elections can be classified as junk news, compared to the 19% of shared content created by professional news outlets. Less than 5% of shared content came from government agencies, experts, or the candidates themselves. This is the first time junk news has overtaken mainstream professional news content in recent studies of junk news surrounding elections globally.

Despite new initiatives by social media companies to “clean up” the junk news on their platforms, the problem is spreading into new communities. “In 2016, junk news was concentrated among President Trump’s support base and the far-right,” says researcher Nahema Marchal. “Today, junk news content is also being shared by more mainstream conservatives, reaching wider audiences than ever before. The type of rhetoric and content that used to be characteristic of a niche media ecosystem serving primarily hard-right audiences has trickled down to the mainstream.”

Who is behind the rise of junk news? The role of external actors, such as foreign governments, are likely not significant when it comes to the US midterms. “It is domestic alternative media outlets that are dominating the political debate on social media,” says researcher Lisa-Maria Neudert. “What we are seeing is home-grown conspiracy theories and falsehoods. The problem now reaches far beyond foreign influence campaigns and extremist fringe voices. Junk news has been domesticated, and social media users have an appetite.”

For the discerning voters interested in examining the problem of junk news in real time, the Computational Propaganda project has created the Junk News Aggregator. “This is a novel tool for studying junk news on Facebook as it happens,” says Mimie Liotsiou, researcher and creator of the Junk News Aggregator. The user-friendly Aggregator makes visible the quantity and content of junk news, as well as the level of engagement. Users can search keywords, such as candidate names and districts, to reveal what is being shared, in real time as well as up to a month in the past. “We want to shed light on the problem of junk news, and help improve the public’s media literacy. We hope to make this issue more transparent to voters, policy-makers, and tech companies.”

The research examined 2.5 million tweets and nearly 7,000 Facebook pages over a 30-day period, ending 31 October 2018. Junk news was classified as sources publishing deliberately misleading, deceptive or incorrect information, typically in an ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial fashion, and meeting a variety of criteria related to professionalism, style, credibility, bias, and counterfeiting.

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