Computational propaganda flourished during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but what is most concerning is not so much the amount of fake news on social media but where it might have been directed.
False information didn’t flow evenly across social networks. There were six states where Donald Trump’s margin of victory was less than two percent ― Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If there were any real-world consequences to fake news, that’s where they would appear ― where public opinion was evenly split right up to Election Day.
So, what political news and information were people in those states sharing over social media? How much of it was extremist, sensationalist or commentary masking as news?
To answer these questions, my team and I at politicalbots.org collected data on fake news ― what we call “junk news” ― on Twitter using major hashtags related to politics in the state of Michigan in the lead-up to the election. Separately, we tracked news shared from the Kremlin-backed news agency Russia Today and WikiLeaks. What we found is that in Michigan, conversation about politics over Twitter mirrored the national trends ― Trump-related hashtags were used more than twice as often as Clinton-related hashtags. Social media users in Michigan shared a lot of political content, but the amount of professionally researched political news and information was consistently smaller than the amount of junk news.
Some politicians may keep pushing junk news to the parts of the country that voted their way, while other parts get high-quality information.
In fact, when you add in the number of links to unverified content on WikiLeaks or news from the Kremlin-backed news agency Russia Today, more than half the political news and information being shared by social media users in Michigan was not from trusted sources. For every link to a news story produced by a professional journalist, there was a link to content from one of the extremist, sensationalist, commentary sites. And not only did such junk news “outperform” real news, but the proportion of professional news content being shared hit its lowest point the day before the election.
Political speech gets a lot of protections in the U.S., but the reasonable balance between freedom of speech and election interference has been tipped. There is such a significant volume of misinformation flowing over social media that it is difficult to imagine voters in the U.S. are equipped with what they need to make good decisions. Did voters in Michigan get what they needed last year? Our conclusion: certainly not.
We did similar research during a less controversial election in Germany and found that for every four stories sourced to a professional news organization, there was one piece of junk. In part, this healthier ratio is because levels of education are high in Germany, and there is public financing for several kinds of professional news organizations. But the voting public in Germany ― and its politicians ― are panicked even with this level of misinformation.
That may produce deeper inequality across states, with some politicians making decisions based on evidence and others making choices based on bad information.
People get their political news and information from many sources. Social media is an important one because we often trust our friends and family to pass on good information. Unfortunately, the science of network analysis shows how information pollution, like what we found in Michigan, can weaken democracy.
If the followers of candidates who lost the election begin un-friending the followers of candidates who won, our social networks will become even more bounded than they already are. Worse, some politicians may keep pushing junk news to the parts of the country that voted their way, while other parts get high-quality information. Indeed, as former FBI agent Clint Watts said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, social media bots and online trolls didn’t stop at the election – they are still working to spread fake news today. That may produce an even deeper level of inequality across states, with some politicians and government officials making good decisions based on evidence and others making lousy choices based on bad information.
It is hard to know what a comprehensive solution might be. Part of the explanation for all this involves big-picture changes in the business of news and generational differences in how young people consume news. But we are at a point where some kind of public policy oversight is needed, and we past the point where social media firms can be left to come up with voluntary initiatives.
The FEC was formed in response to Watergate. Perhaps our current crisis will produce the political will to revive the FEC.
First, the Federal Elections Commission needs to revisit its very limited rulings on electronic communications. Unfortunately, the FEC has been deadlocked on many big decisions in recent years. Dirty tricks, AstroTurf campaigns and now junk political news are appealing political campaign tools because they have been largely unregulated. Some campaigns of misinformation are low-budget but involve coordinated content production with candidates and big political action committees. Currently, the FEC doesn’t have the capacity to regulate, even if it wanted to. But the FEC was formed in response to Watergate. Perhaps our current crisis will produce the political will to revive the FEC with the clout to restore the balance between free speech and election interference.
The second step is to hold social media firms responsible for serving misinformation to voters. For the moment, Facebook and Twitter are deflecting responsibility by encouraging civil society groups and journalists to fact-check content on Facebook and Twitter. And they decline to say much about how their algorithms work or share data with researchers. Did political campaigners concentrate their propaganda in key states? Social media firms like Twitter and Facebook could answer this question, but they have not ― yet. Facebook in particular has conducted wide-ranging experiments but won’t share data with researchers.
Governments around the world are considering a variety of interventions ― fines, algorithm audits and mandatory public service ads, for example. Voters learn about politics through social media, and right now, social media firms are giving us junk. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter don’t generate junk news but they do serve it up to us. They are the mandatory point of passage for this junk, which means they could also be the choke point for it.