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May 5, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Republicans seem more susceptible to fake news than Democrats (but liberals, don’t feel too comfy yet)

Plus: An investigation into fake news in the French presidential election.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“Misinformation is currently predominantly a pathology of the right.” A team of scholars from the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University a report, “Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action,” this week, drawing on research presented at a February conference they hosted:

As a research community, we identified three courses of action that can be taken in the immediate future: involving more conservatives in the discussion of misinformation in politics, collaborating more closely with journalists in order to make the truth “louder,” and developing multidisciplinary community-wide shared resources for conducting academic research on the presence and dissemination of misinformation on social media platforms.

As for fake news being a bigger problem on the right than on the left, the report cites a January paper in which economics professors Hunt Allcott of NYU and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford found that, in the 2016 presidential election, “fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Donald Trump” and that “Democrats are overall more likely to correctly identify true versus false articles.”

“Bringing more conservatives into the deliberation process about misinformation is an essential step in combating fake news and providing an unbiased scientific treatment to the research topic,” the Shorenstein report’s authors write.

At the same time, the authors note that “there is at least anecdotal evidence that when Republicans are in power, the left becomes increasingly susceptible to promoting and accepting fake news. A case in point is a conspiracy theory, spread principally by the left during the Bush Administration, that the government was responsible for 9/11. This suggests that we may expect to witness a rise in left-wing-promulgated fake news over the next several years.” This point is echoed in a Nieman Reports article by Jestin Coler, the (reformed?) creator of the Denver Guardian and other fake news sites. He writes:

This is not an issue isolated to the fringe right. Both sides of the political aisle are susceptible to fake news, and with the recent shift in the balance of power I see liberals as being a prime target for anything negative about President Trump or his administration.

“Your research is shockingly unpersuasive.” Separately, I heard a bunch of the folks who contributed research to that Harvard/Northeastern report speak this week at a conference on fake news at Harvard’s engineering school. David Lazer, a Northeastern professor of political science and computer science, offered the comments that he, as a professor, would have offered on Facebook’s recent white paper on information security as it pertains to civic engagement and fake news:

For a $500 billion company with the best talent and the biggest data, your research is shockingly unpersuasive, and while you use the word transparency, you actually do not use the concept. So normally I would fail you — handing in something this inadequate this late. But democracy around the world needs you to not fail, so I’m going to give you an incomplete.

He also said he’s currently developing data that would allow him to look at fake news on Facebook without Facebook’s help. (Many studies about fake news on social media have focused on Twitter, because Facebook’s data isn’t open — but most fake news lives on Facebook, not Twitter.

“The online networks of Trump and Putin” French prosecutors launched an investigation Thursday into whether fake news is being used to influence the election against centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, toward far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. A bunch of 4chan-ers said they’d found evidence that Macron had an offshore account in the Bahamas; Le Pen hinted at the rumors in a debate Wednesday night (“I hope that we don’t learn that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas”), and “all of Russian propaganda’s most influential [online] accounts” shared the story, reports Eric Maurice for EUObserver.

(“Okay, so the fake news about Macron’s account in the Bahamas: It can be said without too much risk of error that it’s by the Russians.”)

From Politico:

Macron later put out a statement saying the rumor was “fake news” and accusing “the online networks of Trump and Putin” of launching a “campaign of digital disinformation.” His statement also blamed Le Pen’s National Front. “Here is how fake news makes inroads a few hours before the heart of the French presidential campaign,” he said, castigating Le Pen for mentioning the online reports during the debate.

The second (not final) round of the French election takes place Sunday. The New York Times’ Mark Scott writes about European efforts to combat fake news; “the problem in Europe has mutated, experts say, making it impossible to merely replicate American responses to the issue.” (Because European countries are smaller than the U.S. and have different languages, “groups that set up fake news sites in the United States, seeking to profit from online advertising when false claims were shared on social media, are less prevalent in Europe.”) Furthermore, American alt-right messages and memes are not taking off in France: “Almost two-thirds of Twitter messages using the hashtag MFGA — or Make France Great Again — have originated from the United States, according to David Chavalarias, a French academic, who created a digital tool to analyze more than 80 million Twitter messages about the French election.”

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     May 5, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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