Study: Fake election news flooded Mich. Twitter feeds

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan Twitter feeds were flooded with fake, untrustworthy or otherwise dubious “news” accounts in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, according to a new study.

Researchers from Oxford University in England say “junk news” was as prevalent — if not more widespread — than professional news content shared on the social media site by self-identified Michigan users between Nov. 1 and 11.

“Not only did this computational propaganda ‘outperform’ real news in Michigan in the lead-up to the presidential election, but the proportion of professional news content being shared hit its lowest point the day before the election,” Oxford researchers wrote in a paper released last week.

So-called junk news is not unique to Michigan, according to the paper, but the Oxford Internet Institute chose to study the battleground state because pre-election polls showed a close race. Republican President Donald Trump ended up winning Michigan by 10,704 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The report comes amid continued scrutiny of Russian meddling in the election. U.S. intelligence officials have said election results were not hacked, but the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee last week suggested Russia may have used “internet trolls” to disseminate targeted propaganda in swing states.

“It’s been reported to me – and we’ve got to find this out – whether they were able to in effect (target) specific areas in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.

Oxford researchers didn’t try to find out who was behind the tweets they studied. Instead, they analyzed content from Twitter users who manually provided information indicating they were located in Michigan.

They also acknowledged the limitations of their study, which focused on tweets using popular political hash tags, including #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, #DrainTheSwamp and #ImWithHer. Tweets about the presidential election that did not include a hash tag were not captured for analysis.

All told, researchers reviewed 138,686 tweets from self-described Michigan users. More than three times as many tweets were linked to pro-Trump hash tags than pro-Clinton.

Of the 24,783 tweets that included links to political information, 6,469 cited content that researchers deemed “propaganda” or “ideologically extreme.” Much of it, they said, was “deliberately produced false reporting” intended to persuade readers.

Lead author Philip N. Howard was not available for an interview Monday, but he recently told McClatchy newspapers that a third of the content they considered junk news came from right-wing sites such as Breitbart, InfoWars and TruthFeed.

By comparison, 6,408 tweets included links to articles from professional news companies.

Another 211 tweets shared “Russian-origin news stories” and 1,186 shared “unverified” content from WikiLeaks, which released large batches of hacked Clinton campaign emails in the run-up to the election.

All told, 46.5 percent of all content presented in Michigan as political news and information was “of an untrustworthy provenance or falls under the definition of propaganda based on its use of language and emotional appeals,” according to the study.

The paper “confirms some of the suspicions about the dialogue that took place” around the presidential election, said Dave Dulio, chairman of the Oakland University political science department.

But he noted the study’s limitations, including the hash-tag-derived sample, which means it wasn’t a “full examination of even the Twitter conversation” that was happening.

“This isn’t the first election cycle where people have made stuff up about the government and politicians and candidates,” Dulio said. “It maybe has reached a peak, let’s hope, during this past election cycle.”

Intelligence committees in the U.S. House and Senate have held hearings on Russian intelligence activities during the election campaign, including alleged use of propaganda.

In a Thursday committee hearing, Warner asked a counter-terrorism expert if Russia could target misinformation down to the precinct level, citing a prevalence of fake reports that Clinton was seriously ill in the days before the election.

Former FBI agent Clinton Watts told committee members he thinks Russia was sophisticated enough to run a targeted influence campaign on social media by creating fake accounts.

By pulling information from existing social media accounts in Wisconsin, he said, “you just recreate accounts that look exactly like people from Wisconsin.

“So that way, whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simply because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures,” Watts said.

Some schools are also attempting to emphasize media literacy, including the University of Michigan, which this fall will offer a new one-credit “fake news” course designed to help students evaluate online sources and separate fact from fiction.

“Technology has made it so that anyone can write something online,” said Angie Oehrli, a learning librarian with the UM Library, which is designing the course in collaboration with the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

“So we’ll talk about how technology both democratizes the dissemination of information and demands more from it’s citizens in terms of evaluating what they read.”