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Nov. 15, 2019, 10:25 a.m.
Audience & Social

News portals like Yahoo still bring Democrats and Republicans together for political news, but they’re fading fast

Plus: Hello “lifestyle misinformation,” hundreds of dead newspapers “revived” online to support Indian interests, and all of the fact-checking discussion you could possibly want.

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.

“We observe segregation in political news consumption.” In this working paper, “Partisan Enclaves and Information Bazaars: Mapping Selective Exposure to Online News,” Stanford researchers examined a “data set of web browsing behavior collected during the 2016 U.S. presidential election” to see how Democrats and Republicans seek out news sources and how they change their news consumption levels in response to different political events. (The data set is from YouGov and was also used in this paper.)

The researchers looked at two specific events during the 2016 campaign — Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape and the Comey letter revealing that he’d reopened the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton — to see how people reacted. One thing they found:

Democrats consumed more news stories after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, while Republican consumption was largely unaffected. Conversely, Republicans increased their news consumption following the release of the Comey letter, while Democrats consumed no more news than usual.

The paper also offers yet more evidence that Democrats and Republicans prefer different sources for political news. Of the top 30 political news sites most visited by Democrats, just a handful also received attention and were more favored by Republicans — The Hill, the Disney-owned go.com (which includes ABC News), Real Clear Politics, and Fox News.

Of the top 30 political news sites most visited by Republicans, several were favored by Democrats.

From the paper:

Visually, these plots indicate considerable partisan selectivity overall, and especially for use of non-portals. If partisanship had nothing to do with domain visits, the top thirty domains would all have approximately 0 favorability. The fact that so few domains are near 0 implies that partisanship is a strong predictor of how individuals allocate their attention to political news online. Democrats and Republicans do give some minor amount of attention to sources favored by their opponents, but most of the audience heterogeneity occurs at portal sites. Furthermore, in Appendix D, we show that portal visits are mostly concentrated in a minority of heavy portal users, and even these individuals prefer congenial sources when they traverse off of their preferred portal site.

It is worth noting that Republicans appear slightly more willing to visit sites favored by Democrats than vice versa. Comparing Figure 2 and Figure 1, we see that at least eight of the top thirty Republican domains are favored more by Democrats: CNN, Washington Post, New York Times, Five Thirty Eight, Snopes, NBC News, Huffington Post, and CBS News. In contrast, only about four of the top thirty Democratic domains are favored more by Republicans: Real Clear Politics, Go, Fox News, and The Hill. We have no way of knowing if these Republicans actually have a preference for (or no preference against) Democratic-favored news or if they are simply unaware of their alternatives. Most of the Democratic-favored platforms visited by Republicans fall in the legacy category, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and thus benefit from a historical brand that the Republican alternatives, such as Breitbart, have yet to achieve.

A different way of wording that: Republicans do still consume some mainstream/legacy news sources (CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CBS News), but Democrats prefer them.

As for those portal sites — Yahoo, MSN, AOL — they still dominate for news in general (including sports scores, weather, celebrity gossip, and so on), but for political news, their use is fading:

In this study, “only 2 percent of the share of traffic to portals involved political news,” and “among individuals who encounter political information, portals account for only one-quarter of their browsing.”

“A whole new class of online creator: the scientist-influencer debunking false information in their area of expertise.” In Wired, Emma Grey Ellis writes about the “apolitical” debunkers whose mission is to expose “lifestyle misinformation.” They work primarily on YouTube and Instagram, debunking content that is unlikely to violate the platforms’ rules or surface their official fact-checking mechanisms — the “questionable beauty products, “pseudoscientific claims about diets and nutrition,” the channels “telling viewers to consume only raw fruit, to drink copious amounts of celery juice, to avoid vegetables entirely and go carnivore, to eat nothing at all.”

Let’s talk about fact-checking. CJR’s Galley brought in a bunch of fact-checking folks to talk this week — here are conversations with Mike Caufield, Lead Stories’ Maarten Schenk, PolitiFact’s Angie Drobnic Holan, Snopes founder David Mikkelson, the International Fact Checking Network’s Baybars Orsek, Stanford Internet Observatory’s Reneé DiResta, NewsGuard’s Gordon Crovitz, Northwestern professor Nathan Walter, Google News Lab’s Alexios Mantzarlis, Truth or Fiction’s Brooke Binkowski, Tow’s Jonathan Albright, and The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill. It’ll cap off today with a roundtable discussion.

Dead newspapers, revived in the support of Indian interests. The EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based NGO that looks at disinformation campaigns that target Europe, says it uncovered at network of 265 fake local news sites around the world that seem to be tied to India and were pushing pro-India messages. Many of them use the names of dead newspapers (the New York Journal-American, the New York Morning Telegraph) or even live ones (the “Times of Los Angeles,” which is not the same thing as the Los Angeles Times).

Here are some findings from these websites:

  • Most of them are named after an extinct local newspaper or spoof real media outlets;
  • They republish content from several news agencies (KCNA, Voice of America, Interfax);
  • Coverage of the same Indian-related demonstrations and events;
  • Republications of anti-Pakistan content from the described Indian network (including EP Today, 4NewsAgency, Times Of Geneva, New Delhi Times);
  • Most websites have a Twitter account as well.

One may wonder: why have they created these fake media outlets? From analysing the content and how it is shared, we found several arguments to do so:

  • Influence international institutions and elected representatives with coverage of specific events and demonstrations;
  • Provide NGOs with useful press material to reinforce their credibility and thus be impactful;
  • Add several layers of media outlets that quote and republish one another, making it harder for the reader to trace the manipulation, and in turn (sometimes) offer a “mirage” of international support;
  • Influence public perceptions on Pakistan by multiplying iterations of the same content available on search engines.

You can see a map of the “local” sites here. They’re spread across 60-plus countries; in the U.S., the real brands (dead or alive) lifted include the Topeka State Journal, the Houston “Morning” Chronicle, the Minneapolis Evening Journal, the Seattle Star, the Indianapolis Daily Herald, the Charlottesville Tribune, the Salt Lake Telegram, and the Oregon Journal.

Finally, your weekly dose of cheer. First Draft’s Claire Wardle on what she’s most negative about:

I’m most negative about the threats posed by information disorder. I think we have two to three years until the majority of people no longer know what information or evidence to trust. If this problem is left unsolved, information disorder will have a catastrophic impact on the way people think about climate, vaccinations, democratic institutions, and each other.

Illustration by Filip Jovceski used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 15, 2019, 10:25 a.m.
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