EU’s Counterattack on Junk News May Help Protect Elections

Government efforts to minimize the effects of junk and fake news circulating on social media ahead of this week’s EU parliamentary elections may have succeeded, suggest results of a study conducted by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project.

The European Commission undertook targeted actions to counter junk news last year. It rolled out plans to build capacity for joint responses to misinformation campaigns in the EU; launched campaigns to raise awareness among voters; took legal and regulatory actions to force social media companies to disclose financial information about political campaign advertising; and criminalized hate speech and illegal content.

The Computational Propaganda Project in April and May examined tweets and Facebook pages in seven European languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Swedish.

Among its findings:

  • Less than 4 percent of sources circulating on Twitter during that period were junk news or known Russian outlets;
  • Overall, links to mainstream news outlets accounted for 34 percent of the links shared on Twitter;
  • On Facebook, many more users interacted with mainstream news content overall;
  • However, individual junk news stories on Facebook still drew up to four times the number of shares and likes as even the best, most important professionally produced news stories; and
  • The most successful junk news stories in the data set collected tended to revolve around populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobia. Few expressed Euroskepticism or directly mentioned European leaders or parties.

Prolific German and Italian junk news outlets, such as Journalistenwatch and Il Primato Nazianale, “received far fewer total likes, comments and shares than the equivalent professional news sources,” the researchers said.

The reduction in reliance on junk news can be attributed to “emotional inoculation,” remarked Michael Jude, program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

“When somebody is constantly barraged with emotionally charged language, over time they become desensitized to it. Fake news is usually very emotionally charged,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Nobody can survive on that kind of fight-or-flight response constantly, Jude observed. “When every other foot of land has a lion on it you soon get used to lions.”

The Methodology Used

The researchers investigated the following:

  • What type of political news and information social media users were sharing ahead of the vote in the seven languages studied;
  • How much of that news and information was extremist, sensationalist or conspiratorial junk news;
  • What engagement those sites had on Facebook and Twitter in the weeks leading up to the vote; and
  • What were the most common narratives and themes relayed by junk news outlets.

They collected nearly 600,000 tweets relating to the EU parliamentary elections from about 188,000 unique users between April 5 and 20, and they extracted about 138,000 tweets containing a URL link, which pointed to a total of about 5,800 unique media sources.

Sources that were shared five times or more between April 5 and 20 were classified manually by nine multilingual coders. Each source was coded individually by two separate coders. Nearly 91 percent of all links shared were successfully labeled.

The researchers also extracted the five most popular sources of junk news in each of the seven languages studied and measured the volume of Facebook interactions with these outlets from April 5 to May 5, using the NewsWhip Analytics dashboard.

They computed the same metrics for each source, and then conducted a thematic analysis of the 20 most engaging junk news stories on Facebook during the data collection period.

Home-Grown Garbage

Overall, the researchers found “very low proportions of junk news and almost no content from known Russian websites,” except a few links to RT and the Sputnik news agency, which made up less than 1 percent of traffic in Swedish, French and German.

Homegrown, alternative or hyper-partisan media outlets constituted the bulk of identified junk news sources.

Content produced by independent citizens, civic groups, and civil society organizations, including a number of get-out-the-vote initiatives, accounted for 16 percent of German-language traffic and 21 percent of English-language traffic.

However, “the issue is not Russian websites, but the infiltration of other websites by Russian influence,” noted Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

“I expect more meddling from inside the chicken coop,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The Russian — and to some extent Chinese — infiltration is happening inside the network, not outside.”

Facebook has been working hard to stop the spread of false news, a spokesperson said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by company rep Lauren Svensson.

“Actors seeking to profit from misinformation are highly motivated and continue to employ new tactics to garner clicks, so it’s possible to pick out specific examples of things we miss and there will occasionally be false news posts that perform well,” the spokesperson said.

“What we’re really interested in is the overall amount of misinformation on Facebook, and whether that’s trending down,” the spokesperson noted. “As this report finds, overall, mainstream media coverage of the EU elections performed better than junk news on Facebook, both in terms of publisher following and engagement.”

With respect to engagement, however, the researchers found that individual junk news stories on Facebook drew up to four times the number of shares and likes as even the best, most important professionally produced news stories.

Vigilance Is Key

Overall, it seems that many people have lost faith in political and information dissemination systems.

In a survey of 400 Americans aged 18 and older, which ExpressVPN conducted last fall through Google Surveys,

  • 63 percent of respondents said they lacked trust in voting systems;
  • 60 percent of respondents did not trust the news media, social media, or election candidates;
  • 28 percent trusted the news media;
  • 6 percent of respondents trusted social media; and
  • 6 percent of respondents trusted the candidates.

One in five adults in the United States get news through social media, the Pew Research Center has reported.

“Alternative sources are gaining traction,” said Constellation’s Wang, “as media distrust increases.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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