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June 8, 2018, 8 a.m.
Audience & Social

Zika rumors got three times more shares than real Zika stories. What can health educators do?

Plus: Qatari bots, Swedish pamphlets, and French laws.

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.

Blame and pesticides. Fake health news gets less attention than fake political news (and inaccurate science stuff has been shared to Facebook as long as there’s Facebook), but it’s a fascinating thing to study. (And the willingness to believe different kinds of fake news is linked.) A new paper in the American Journal of Health Education looks at how Zika rumors spread on Facebook compared to verified information; the researchers — who include University of South Florida’s Silvia Sommariva and her husband, Poynter’s Alexios Mantzarlis — found that Zika rumors were shared three times more than verified news, which could “hinder disease prevention efforts.”

Using BuzzSumo, the researchers tracked the reach of Zika-related information across Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google Plus. “We retrieved monthly data for the top 10 Zika-related stories by popularity for the period from February 2016, when the WHO declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern, to January 2017. Overall, a sample of 120 stories was analyzed (top 10 for each month over a 12-month period).” Sommariva and Mantzarlis fact-checked the stories and coded their source: “legacy media,” “digital media,” “alternative media,” and “scientific/institutions,” with the difference between “digital media” and “alternative media” being that “digital media maintain an editorial structure and verification process similar to that of print newspapers, whereas alternative media are mostly run as individual or collective blogs.” Finally, the researchers analyzed the stories’ headlines and compared that to how often they’d been shared, “to explore the characteristics driving stories’ popularity and neglected aspects of the Zika crisis.”

What they found:

— Sixty-six percent of the 120 most popular news stories were produced by alternative media sites like GMWatch, US Uncut, and The Free Thought Project. “On average, alternative media had the highest reach of news stories (44,673 shares per story), followed by digital media (36,340 shares per story), legacy media (12,482 shares per story), and scientific organizations or institutions (9,656 shares per story).” And fully half of the top 10 Zika-related stories on social media were rumors.

— Twenty-seven of the 120 news stories analyzed (remember, these were the 120 most popular Zika news stories) were categorized as rumors (22.5 percent). Rumors were shared, on average, three times more often than verified news stories — though “the proportion of rumors dropped substantially over the course of the period considered…concurrent with the overall decline in shares of Zika-related news stories.”

— “The most popular rumors had headlines that covered issues such as blame (often associated with the actor or organization to be blamed) and pesticides.”

— One thing the authors suggest is that health educators look at the content of stories being shared, beyond just how many times they’re shared:

Several fabricated stories portrayed Zika as a low-risk issue; however, this type of framing did not appear in verified stories. Such framing represents a threat to the implementation of disease prevention efforts and prevention behaviors, because the virus may not be perceived by the public as a public health priority. This understanding could prompt Health Educators not only to disseminate content that refutes the “low-risk” view but also to try to meet the information needs of users by promoting accurate content on the risks of Zika. Moreover, information on which topics have been neglected in the social media debate would prove helpful to redirect communication efforts toward less-discussed issues. In our study, for instance, few verified news stories explicitly addressed the impact of Zika on men’s health, which suggests the need for Health Educators to focus on risk-related messages that target the male population.

France’s proposed fake news law would let judges block access to content. On Thursday, the French legislature began debating President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed bill to fight fake news. From Agence France-Presse

Under the law, French authorities would be able to immediately halt the publication of information deemed to be false ahead of elections.

Social networks would have to introduce measures allowing users to flag up false reports, pass their data on such articles to authorities, and make public their efforts against fake news.

And the law would authorise the state to take foreign broadcasters off the air if they were attempting to destabilize France — a measure seemingly aimed at Russian state-backed outlet RT in particular.

From The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter, who notes that Macron’s majority means the bill is likely to pass:

Under the new law, judges would have 48 hours to decide if “any allegation or imputation” in a news item was “devoid of verifiable elements that would make it credible.” Only items written “in bad faith” could be blocked, and again it would be up to the judge to decide.

Critics say that among the law’s other problems, 48 hours is too short to make such judgments. They also expressed concern that the process could put journalists’ sources at risk.

“Persian Gulf regimes create — or order the creation — of thousands of bots to tweet in a coordinated fashion.” Twitter bots are a problem in the Persian Gulf. In May, 29 percent of a random sample of Arabic tweets mentioning Qatar were tweeted by bots, according to researchers Marc Jones and Alexei Abrahams, up from an already-high 17 percent last year.

Propaganda bots operating in the gulf do not attempt to engage other users directly, tending instead to focus on increasing the public salience of statements tweeted by prominent human accounts. For example, bots often amplify tweets by critics of the Qatari government or royal family, such as the leader of the Qatari opposition abroad, Khalid al Hail, or @QatariLeaks, an anti-Qatar website. Thousands of bots have been mobilized against Qatari news station Al Jazeera. Bots even promoted the pro-Saudi tweets of President Trump during his May 2017 visit to the region.

Typically, almost 90 percent of tweets in gulf crisis hashtags are verbatim retweets of what others have said. Less than 30 percent of Twitter users post original content, and among these, the top 2 percent (0.6 percent overall) are retweeted so much more than anyone else that they drive roughly 75 percent of the conversation. These elite social media influencers are often given a leg up by bots, particularly if they express anti-Qatari sentiment.

“Many people may feel a sense of anxiety when faced with an uncertain world.” The Swedish government is distributing a pamphlet, “If Crisis or War Comes,” to every household in the country. It’s “the first time it has issued a new one since the end of the Cold War,” writes Joseph Trevithick at The Drive. (The Drive, if you were wondering, is Time Inc.’s automotive site.) The pamphlet includes a section on false information, and an English version is here.

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     June 8, 2018, 8 a.m.
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