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Facebook is still a one-stop shop for fake news

By Jon Healey • May 23, 2019 at 6:00 PM

If you’re looking for real news, Twitter is the place to find it. But if you prefer the fake variety, your Facebook feed is the more promising source.

That’s the implication of a new study of European social media traffic by Oxford University’s Internet Institute. The authors looked at more than 580,000 tweets related to this week’s European Parliament elections over a 15-day period in April, finding links in about a quarter of them. They then analyzed the links that were shared at least five times, labeling them as either real or “junk” news, the latter defined as “ideologically extreme, misleading, and factually incorrect information.”

By the way, the most popular source of news that the Oxford team defined as junk was InfoWars, which sprinkles actual news reports in among the fakes and outrage trolling.

One result was a little surprising, given all the concern about Russian meddlers and their ilk. According to the study, less than 4% of the sources shared multiple times on Twitter were junk news or “known Russian sources.” Twitter users were much more prone to point their followers to mainstream news outlets, which made up 34% of the links. The one exception was Polish-language tweets, “where junk news made up 21% of traffic,” the study said.

The bulk of the rest of the links were to political campaigns and related organizations (22%) and to other non-news sources, such as civic groups and nonprofits (36%). Clearly, Twitter users in Europe were obtaining a great deal of their election information from sources outside the “media elite.”

The study’s approach to Facebook was a little different. The authors took the five most popular sources of junk news and the five most popular sources of real journalism across seven different languages, then measured how many likes, comments and shares each source amassed on Facebook during the month leading up to the European elections. Though Facebook users in Europe posted far more links to legitimate news outlets, the junk sources were typically shared with far more gusto.

The propensity to pass along junk news varied widely from country to country, however. German-language junk news links were shared six times as frequently as real news. For English-language material, the junk-to-real news ratio was 4 to 1. For French, 2 to 1. But for posts in Polish and Italian, legitimate sources were more likely to be shared than illegitimate ones.

Results from U.S. users may vary, but the study makes intuitive sense. Facebook curates news feeds to a much greater extent than Twitter; the former is more likely to show you posts that generate an emotional reaction, while the latter seems to just pass on tweets in real time from the people you follow. Put another way, Facebook seems purposely built to support the outrage that junk sources peddle. Twitter, not so much.

One other point about Facebook: The study found that even though links to junk news were much more likely to be shared, considerably fewer people were exposed to them than posts with links to legitimate journalism. The implication is that Facebook users in Europe with a taste for junk news are a relatively small and insular group compared to those who prefer mainstream news sources.

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