More than 80 percent of the Twitter accounts that spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign are still active, a report commissioned by the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation finds.
The report, Disinformation, Fake News and Influence Campaigns on Twitter (62 pages, PDF), examined more than ten million tweets from seven hundred thousand Twitter accounts linked to more than six hundred outlets identified as spreaders of misinformation and conspiracy news in order to understand how misinformation spread during the campaign and found that the "fake news" ecosystem active then is still in place today. Produced by Matthew Hindman of George Washington University in collaboration with Vlad Barash of network analysis firm Graphika, the report highlights more than 6.6 million tweets linking to fake news and conspiracy news publishers in the month before the 2016 election. The report also found that the problem persisted after the election, with some four million tweets linked to fake or conspiracy news sites pumped out from mid-March to mid-April 2017.
In addition, the report explores the role that trolls and automated accounts, or "bots," played in the spread of misinformation and raises new questions about the extent to which foreign actors such as Russia's Internet Research Agency may have been involved in its spread during the campaign. The data also reveals organized efforts by trolls and automated accounts to push content related to the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and documents shared by WikiLeaks, among other examples.
According to the report, the "fake news" ecosystem active during 2016 was highly concentrated, with just a handful of sites accounting for most of the fake news spread on Twitter. That ecosystem continues to reach millions, however, with most of the sites found to be spreading fake or conspiracy news showing evidence of automated posting.
"Our democracy relies on access to news and information we can trust. Right now, the discussion about misinformation online is based on anxiety and conventional wisdom. That's not good enough," said Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact Sam Gill. "What we need is hard research on the complexity and scale of the issue. This report is one step in that process."