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July 17, 2020, 8:59 a.m.
Audience & Social

Republicans and Democrats read a lot of the same news. What they do with it is a different question.

Plus what happens when climate facts get treated as climate opinions.

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.

“(Almost) everything in moderation”? New research by Princeton’s Andy Guess finds that Democrats and Republicans read a lot of the same news sources; most American news consumers aren’t isolated in echo chambers, and most don’t read that much about politics anyway. The outliers with “the most polarized political media diets,” however, are more likely to vote in primary and general elections — and the fact that people are reading a lot of the same news doesn’t mean they’re not processing it (or sharing it) very differently.

Guess started out with 2015 and 2016 data from YouGov Pulse, which tracks users’ web browsing activity (it’s anonymized) in addition to surveying them. He found that most rely on centrist media, including mainstream portals like MSN.com or AOL.com, which have a moderating effect on media diets.

There are extremes at either end, though, especially on the right, and those groups may get more attention. Guess writes:

Even many people who identify in the data as very conservative have relatively moderate media preferences. But those who do not are driving a disproportionate amount of traffic to conservative sites, producing at the macro level an illusion of polarized media consumption. This evidence, then, is consistent with a view that — among the fraction of respondents who visit news and politics websites — the preponderance of the content encountered is ideologically moderate. There is also suggestive evidence of an intense subgroup of Republicans who, possibly in addition to mainstream sources, consume large quantities of conservative, but not liberal, news and information about politics. Similar bumps on the left correspond to the popular viral site BuzzFeed and other left-leaning mainstream sources, in addition to partisan destinations such as Daily Kos. Arguably, then, most people are not habitual partisan news consumers — approximately 18% of respondents in 2015 and 33% in 2016 have at least 10% of their visits to political news content originating from sites with absolute slant greater than 0.75. But it might seem so from the point of view of news publishers, which may lack the ability to see the individuals lurking behind inbound traffic — leading to the possibility of feedback loops via engagement metrics and optimization.

The New York Times’ Max Fisher warns that Guess’s findings shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that polarization isn’t a major problem. Sure, people may be reading a lot of the same news, but how are they getting to it and what are they sharing on social media? “I think this severely misunderstands how people read and share news today,” he writes.

Guess’s paper is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science; read the preprint here.

“Under the company’s guidelines, climate content can be classified as opinion.” The New York Times’ Veronica Penney notes that Facebook lets climate change misinformation flow free by classifying it as opinion content.

The policy means that peer-reviewed science can be lumped into the same category as industry statements and even blatant disinformation. In September, for example, the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit group that says increased carbon emissions are good for the planet, successfully overturned a fact-check when Facebook quietly labeled its post as “opinion.”

The CO2 Coalition story was originally reported by Scott Waldman of E&E News. In June, he investigated what happened:

The CO2 Coalition is increasingly focused on using Facebook to reach more people with its message that climate change fears are overblown and that burning more fossil fuels would help humanity, executive director Caleb Rossiter told E&E News this week. He sees the battle over its climate-related posts as part of a larger proxy war over how to reach an audience outside of conservative media.

“It’s a huge reach. You can reach so many people both with your posts and your advertisements,” Rossiter said. “We’re kind of like Donald Trump. We’re not happy with the treatment we’re getting from the mainstream media, we resort to social media. That’s where our action is in larger part.”

Rossiter said the coalition was also temporarily blocked from running ads after the fact-check. After the “false” label was removed from its climate models piece, the coalition is now again allowed to buy ads. It has run a number of ads with messages that distort climate change and make inflammatory statements such as “we are saving the people of the planet from the people who claim they are saving the planet.” Those ads have received more than 50,000 impressions, Facebook data shows.

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

POSTED     July 17, 2020, 8:59 a.m.
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