Trump supporters are the biggest consumers of low-quality, sensationalist news stories on social media, according to a new report by Oxford University.
The study, conducted over three months leading up to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address last week, goes beyond the abundant evidence that Republicans, Democrats, and independents rely on different news sources, finding a clear divide in which social media users consume stories from discredited sources.
Consumers of these accounts are "playing with different facts, and they think they have the inside scoop on conspiracies," lead researcher Philip Howard told McClatchy. "A small chunk of the population isn't able to talk politics or share ideas in a sensible way with the rest of the population."
"The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together."—Computational Propaganda Project, Oxford University
Researchers with the university's Computational Propaganda Project monitored more than 13,000 politically active Twitter users who fell into a number of categories including Trump supporters, Trump Resistance members, and progressives, as well as 48,000 Facebook accounts that showed an interest in political news—ranging from people who expressed anti-immigrant sentiments to those who posted about women's rights and other progressive causes.
The study also identified 91 sources that were identified as dispensing "junk news"—defined as "extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, masked commentary, and fake news."
"The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together," the researchers concluded. "This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news."
The report also found that "junk news" made up the largest proportion of news stories shared by the Trump Support contingent on Twitter.
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The inundation of a small segment of the population with a false narrative about the country's politics is "a problem for democracy," Howard said. "In an ideal world, everybody would get at least a few of the same news stories. There'd be some shared facts and some shared understanding of the problems."
Oxford's study follows growing concern over the rampant spread of false news on social media, which media experts say influenced the 2016 election. Last month, Facebook announced it would take measures to curb the circulation of misleading or incorrect news stories on its social media platform by de-emphasizing posts by brands and publications. The decision has led to concerns among reputable news outlets that accurate reporting will have a harder time reaching users through the website—making credible news stories a potential casualty of "junk news."
“Facebook’s upcoming newsfeed change won’t eliminate fake news ... at least, it didn’t in Slovakia. People share sensational or shocking news, while more reliable news tends not to go viral.” https://t.co/hdbo0VpMIc— Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky) February 5, 2018
"My relatives will still share fake news on Facebook, and it will show up in my “news” feed under your new rules. But I won’t see posts from responsible news outlets I choose to follow unless I take several steps to force the newsfeed to prioritize it" https://t.co/g2TJzpowTz— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) February 1, 2018