Less ‘junk news’ on Twitter but still shared widely on Facebook, research claims

So-called ‘junk news’ is more likely to be shared on Facebook than an average story from an established media brand, researchers claim Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

So-called ‘junk news’ is on the decline on Twitter but still receives high engagement on Facebook, researchers claim.

Analysis of disinformation by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) found overall levels of misleading news circulating in the run-up to the December 12 General Election were “relatively low”.

But while junk news sites post an average of 9.6 stories per day compared with 38.2 per day from major news organisations, their articles are “more likely” to be shared on Facebook, OII researchers said.

The OII team, which is part of the University of Oxford, also found that 40% of junk news posts provoked “extreme reactions” from users, compared to more moderate responses to mainstream stories shared on Facebook.

Junk news sources are defined as those which “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news about politics, economics or culture”, the OII said.

Nearly half of junk news outlets are from foreign sources, with many based in the US, Canada or Germany, according to researchers, who added there was “little trace” of the known Russian sources of propaganda.

The most popular junk stories shared on Facebook during the campaign so far have been distorted versions of articles from mainstream news sources, the OII added.

More than a third of all stories analysed referred to the mainstream media and political journalists in their headlines, while three-quarters of those found to be distorted combined this with accusations of wrongdoing, bias or lying, researchers said.

Less than a fifth of junk news stories focused on the parties’ agendas and proposed policies.

However, the analysis found there were two “notable exceptions”: Footage of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal to strengthen Britain’s immigration laws and a video condemning home secretary Priti Patel after she claimed poverty was not the Government’s fault.

Sharing articles from the mainstream media was more popular on Twitter, with links to major news brands making up 33% of shared links, compared to less than 2% from sources defined as junk news in the build-up to the election.

Professor Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, said:  “During the 2017 General Election campaign, we found that junk news was much more prominent, but this time around that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Nahema Marchal, co-author of the report, said: “What’s interesting to note from our analysis is that the most viral stories from junk news sites do not peddle misinformation as such, but often spin the truth in an attempt to discredit the mainstream and established media.”

The research team examined 1.76 million tweets related to the UK General Election from 284,265 unique users between November 13 to 19. From this sample, they extracted 308,793 tweets containing a URL link, with a total of 28,532 unique URLs analysed.

The team also analysed the volume of Facebook interactions with junk news and professional news outlets between November 6 to 27 and analysed the most popular junk news stories.