• Paul D. Wilke

Junk News Diet

We've all heard so much about fake news, Russian bots, and other bad actors working to mold our opinions and sow discord on social media. The Project on Computational Propaganda (COMPROP), based out of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, is composed of a team of information and social scientists studying how misinformation spreads on social media platforms. If you thought this all reached a crescendo with the 2016 Presidential election, think again. Intentional misinformation is still with us, and by some measures is even worse than ever.

Here are the conclusions from COMPROP's recent study on social media trends in the run-up to the 2018 congressional elections. The full report can be found here. It's not long, and the full version has some cool graphics to show how people clump up on the internet according to ideological tribes.

"In conclusion, we found that

(1) 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 proportion of junk news sources circulating over Twitter has increased by five percentage points since 2016, totaling approximately 25% of all URLs captured during our data collection. In comparison, links to professionally produced news content accounted for nearly 19% of shares. This is the highest ratio of polarizing, conspiratorial and low-quality content ever found inone of our samples." (pg. 4)

(2) "Junk news once concentrated among President Trump’s support base has now spread to include communities of mainstream political conservatives."

- "We can see that the cluster of Far-Right pages have the highest coverage score at 89%, followed by the Mainstream Conservative group at 83%, indicating that these two groups shared the widest array of junk news sources identified in our sample. Not only that but Far-Right pages also display the highest consistency score at 44%, indicating that this group has contributed the most to the spread of junk news. Once again, that group is closely similar to the Mainstream Conservative group of Facebook pages, with a consistency score of 22%. These two audiences combined were responsible for a greater share of junk news than all the other groups taken together. (pg. 5)

(3) "Less than five percent of the sources referenced on social media are from public agencies, experts, or the political candidates themselves."

- "Surprisingly it seems that professional political content, including links to the pages of government agencies, experts and the candidates themselves are rarely referenced in social media conversations about politics. Indeed, less than five percent of the sources used include these types of political actors. Among these, links to political parties and candidates comprised only around two percent of total shares." (pg. 4)

"These findings indicate that, overall, individuals discussing politics on social media ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections referred more to news content of varying quality than to material produced by politicians and government organizations. Furthermore, on Facebook, mainstream conservative audiences who used to be more discriminating are increasingly interacting with extreme groups on the far-right fringe of the US political spectrum." (pg. 6)

Sadly, it seems America didn't learn much from 2016. If we are what we eat, the same applies to our minds, and a constant junk news diet is making many Americans mentally flabby. We are also what we think. I will say anecdotally that my own Facebook feed is much quieter than it was a few years ago (thanks, by the way...), but that may only be because I've tuned out the worst junk news spammers on my friends list. Unfortunately, I've concluded that social media suffocation may be the only way to get this problem under control, at least in my own little corner of the net. Tuning out the purveyors of junk news deprives them of the attention they so desperately crave. When someone posts "news" online that's total rubbish, I've learned from experience that Snoping them in public more often than not triggers a backfire effect, or causes them to dig and double down on the garbage they posted (I've been told that Snopes has a liberal bias, which feels like an unintentional admission that facts must also have a liberal bias, but I digress...). Another casualty of this new junk news era is an allergy to respectful, fact-based online discussion that doesn't end in acrimony or name-calling. That doesn't happen much anymore.

Sadly as well, the taint of junk news means that everyone's a cynic now, distrusting anything on social media unless it feels true. As this analysis shows, such skepticism is warranted, but it undermines civic cohesion. Also, we learn that legit news from reputable sources is not the go-to source for information. Instead, junk news is. Even worse are social/political-themed memes, which can be funny, but are more often incredibly effective ways to dumb down the discourse. Again, from my own experience, referencing legit sources to back up a legit point usually gets dismissed with contempt. "Ha! Media bias! Sucker!" "Ha! So you trust the government? Sucker!" And my least favorite bit of totally meaningless advice, "Follow the money!" What we're left with is an online reality of dizzying relativity, where nothing is true beyond each person's subjective reality. My advice, as mentioned above: ignore the junk news provocateurs. Keep social media at arm's length. If you're going to post your opinion about something, good for you, but do your homework first. Remember, everyone's watching. And judging. So go ahead and post those cat videos, food recipes, life moments, and everything in between. I used to think social media could be a real force for good in the world, but at this point, I'll just take a little harmless fun to kill the boredom.