Fringe communities have ‘surprising’ influence in spreading alternative news, study finds
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The first large-scale study of how mainstream and ‘alternative’ news flows around the internet has revealed that fringe communities of politically engaged users on 4chan (an image-sharing board) and Reddit (a web content aggregator) have a large influence on the news appearing on social media.
Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, University College London, Cyprus University of Technology and Telefonica analysed millions of posts shared by users to identify how news spreads between different online communities.
They looked at activity on Twitter, Reddit and 4chan from June 2016 to February 2017: covering the period after Donald Trump became the Republican presidential candidate to soon after he assumed office.
The team looked at URLs of the top 20 mainstream and alternative news sites, examining their ‘paths’ to see where the URLs appeared first. They found that although Twitter has a very heavy influence on the sharing of URLs from alternative news sources on the other platforms, fringe political communities on Reddit and 4chan were also influential in spreading URLs.
“Based on our findings, these smaller, fringe communities on Reddit and 4chan serve as an incubation chamber for a lot of information,” said Professor Jeremy Blackburn, a computer scientist in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“Many online hoaxes, false or misleading stories have been traced back to users on these platforms. The content and talking points are refined until they finally break free and make it to larger, more mainstream communities.”
The paper can be found here.
Many of this misinformation was credit to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Among the most high-profile hoaxes was named ‘pizzagate’, a debunked conspiracy theory which claimed senior Democrats were engaged in a (sometimes Satan-worshipping) child sex abuse ring. Pizzagate proponents argued that John Podesta, chairman of the Clinton campaign, used the term “cheese pizza” as code for ‘child pornography’ in his emails. This hoax flourished on 4chan, Reddit and Twitter.
Thanks to growing awareness of misinformation spread online – particularly with regard to divisive political issues – Collins Dictionary has named ‘fake news’ the word of the year.
Misinformation spread during the US presidential election campaign has hit the headlines again this week as congressional committees carrying out investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election have called representatives of Google, Twitter and Facebook to Capitol Hill to answer questions about how fake news was spread on their platforms.
According to George Stretch, Facebook general counsel, 126 million Facebook users (146 million including Facebook-owned Instagram users) were served Russian propaganda – produced and shared with the intension of supporting Trump’s presidential bid in order to discredit the US on the world stage – in the run up to the US election.
During these hearings, Facebook was put under pressure to notify users who may have seen Russian-backed propaganda, with senators suggesting that Facebook would have to identify these users and inform them what had happened. Stretch said that the challenge of identifying these users would be “substantial”.
“If you were in a medical facility, and you got exposed to a disease, the medical facility would have to tell the folks who were exposed,” said Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice-chairman of the committee.
Meanwhile, a rogue Twitter employee made the most of their administrative powers on their last day at the organisation by shutting down President Trump’s Twitter account for 11 minutes before it was restored. Trump has used his Twitter account to attack opponents, often with name-calling and threats, and has continued to do so since assuming office in January 2017.