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Study finds Trump, right-wing extremism and fake news won the media battle during the 2016 US presidential election campaign

September 13, 2017 - 00:15 -- Admin

In which Facebook Inc is identified as a major commercial player in the media landscape and a significant purveyor of fake news, as well as giving page space to highly partisan and clickbait news sites.Excerpts from Harvard University, Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society, Rob Faris et al, Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, 16 August 2017:Both winners and losers of the 2016 presidential election describe it as a political earthquake. Donald Trump was the most explicitly populist candidate in modern history. He ran an overtly anti-elite and anti-media campaign and embraced positions on trade, immigration, and international alliances, among many other topics, that were outside elite consensus. Trump expressed these positions in starkly aggressive terms. His detractors perceived Trump’s views and the manner in which he communicated them as alarming, and his supporters perceived them as refreshing and candid. He was outraised and outspent by his opponents in both the primary and the general election, and yet he prevailed—contrary to the conventional wisdom of the past several elections that winning, or at least staying close, in the money race is a precondition to winning both the nomination and the election.In this report we explore the dynamics of the election by analyzing over two million stories related to the election, published online by approximately 70,000 media sources between May 1, 2015, and Election Day in 2016. We measure how often sources were linked to by other online sources and how often they were shared on Facebook or Twitter. Through these sharing patterns and analysis of the content of the stories, we identify both what was highly salient according to these different measures and the relationships among different media, stories, and Twitter users.Our clearest and most significant observation is that the American political system has seen not a symmetrical polarization of the two sides of the political map, but rather the emergence of a discrete and relatively insular right-wing media ecosystem whose shape and communications practices differ sharply from the rest of the media ecosystem, ranging from the center-right to the left. Right-wing media were centered on Breitbart and Fox News, and they presented partisan-disciplined messaging, which was not the case for the traditional professional media that were the center of attention across the rest of the media sphere. The right-wing media ecosystem partly insulated its readers from nonconforming news reported elsewhere and moderated the effects of bad news for Donald Trump’s candidacy. While we observe highly partisan and clickbait news sites on both sides of the partisan divide, especially on Facebook, on the right these sites received amplification and legitimation through an attention backbone that tied the most extreme conspiracy sites like Truthfeed, Infowars, through the likes of Gateway Pundit and Conservative Treehouse, to bridging sites like Daily Caller and Breitbart that legitimated and normalized the paranoid style that came to typify the right-wing ecosystem in the 2016 election. This attention backbone relied heavily on social media.For the past 20 years there has been substantial literature decrying the polarization of American politics. The core claim has been that the right and the left are drawing farther apart, becoming more insular, and adopting more extreme versions of their own arguments. It is well established that political elites have become polarized over the past several decades, while other research has shown that the electorate has also grown apart. Other versions of the argument have focused on the internet specifically, arguing that echo chambers or filter bubbles have caused people of like political views to read only one another and to reinforce each other’s views, leading to the adoption of more extreme views. These various arguments have focused on general features of either the communications system or political psychology—homophily, confirmation bias, in-group/out-group dynamics, and so forth. Many commentators and scholars predicted and measured roughly symmetric polarization on the two sides of the political divide.Our observations of the 2016 election are inconsistent with a symmetric polarization hypothesis. Instead, we see a distinctly asymmetric pattern with an inflection point in the center-right—the least populated and least influential portion of the media spectrum. In effect, we have seen a radicalization of the right wing of American politics: a hollowing out of the center-right and its displacement by a new, more extreme form of right-wing politics. During this election cycle, media sources that attracted attention on the center-right, center, center-left, and left followed a more or less normal distribution of attention from the center-right to the left, when attention is measured by either links or tweets, and a somewhat more left-tilted distribution when measured by Facebook shares. By contrast, the distribution of attention on the right was skewed to the far right. The number of media outlets that appeared in the center-right was relatively small; their influence was generally low, whether measured by inlinks or social media shares; and they tended to link out to the traditional media—such as the New York Times and the Washington Post—to the same extent as did outlets in the center, center-left, and left, and significantly more than did outlets on the right. The number of farther-right media outlets is very large, and the preponderance of attention to these sources, which include Fox News and Breitbart, came from media outlets and readers within the right. This asymmetry between the left and the right appears in the link ecosystem, and is even more pronounced when measured by social media sharing…..Our data suggest that the “fake news” framing of what happened in the 2016 campaign, which received much post-election attention, is a distraction. Moreover, it appears to reinforce and buy into a major theme of the Trump campaign: that news cannot be trusted. The wave of attention to fake news is grounded in a real phenomenon, but at least in the 2016 election it seems to have played a relatively small role in the overall scheme of things. We do indeed find stories in our data set that come from sites, like Ending the Fed, intended as political clickbait to make a profit from Facebook, often with no real interest in the political outcome…..Our observations suggest that fixing the American public sphere may be much harder than we would like. One feature of the more widely circulated explanations of our “post-truth” moment—fake news sites seeking Facebook advertising, Russia engaging in a propaganda war, or information overload leading confused voters to fail to distinguish facts from false or misleading reporting—is that these are clearly inconsistent with democratic values, and the need for interventions to respond to them is more or less indisputable. If profit-driven fake news is the problem, solutions like urging Facebook or Google to use technical mechanisms to identify fake news sites and silence them by denying them advertising revenue or downgrading the visibility of their sites seem, on their face, not to conflict with any democratic values. Similarly, if a foreign power is seeking to influence our democratic process by propagandistic means, then having the intelligence community determine how this is being done and stop it is normatively unproblematic. If readers are simply confused, then developing tools that will feed them fact-checking metrics while they select and read stories might help. These approaches may contribute to solving the disorientation in the public sphere, but our observations suggest that they will be working on the margins of the core challenge……  In this study, we analyze both mainstream and social media coverage of the 2016 United States presidential election. We document that the majority of mainstream media coverage was negative for both candidates, but largely followed Donald Trump’s agenda: when reporting on Hillary Clinton, coverage primarily focused on the various scandals related to the Clinton Foundation and emails. When focused on Trump, major substantive issues, primarily immigration, were prominent. Indeed, immigration emerged as a central issue in the campaign and served as a defining issue for the Trump campaign.We find that the structure and composition of media on the right and left are quite different. The leading media on the right and left are rooted in different traditions and journalistic practices. On the conservative side, more attention was paid to pro-Trump, highly partisan media outlets. On the liberal side, by contrast, the center of gravity was made up largely of long-standing media organizations steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism.Our data supports lines of research on polarization in American politics that focus on the asymmetric patterns between the left and the right, rather than studies that see polarization as a general historical phenomenon, driven by technology or other mechanisms that apply across the partisan divide.The analysis includes the evaluation and mapping of the media landscape from several perspectives and is based on large-scale data collection of media stories published on the web and shared on Twitter……Immigration emerged as the leading substantive issue of the campaign. Initially, the Trump campaign used a hard-line anti-immigration stance to distinguish Trump from the field of GOP contenders. Later, immigration was a wedge issue between the left and the right. Pro-Trump media sources supported this with sensationalistic, race-centric coverage of immigration focused on crime, terrorism, fear of Muslims, and disease.While coverage of his candidacy was largely critical, Trump dominated media coverage…..Conservative media disrupted.Breitbart emerges as the nexus of conservative media. The Wall Street Journal is treated by social media users as centrist and less influential. The rising prominence of Breitbart along with relatively new outlets such as the Daily Caller marks a significant reshaping of the conservative media landscape over the past several years…..  Donald Trump succeeded in shaping the election agenda. Coverage of Trump overwhelmingly outperformed coverage of Clinton. Clinton’s coverage was focused on scandals, while Trump’s coverage focused on his core issues.Figure 1: Number of sentences by topic and candidate from May 1, 2015, to November 7, 2016On the partisan left and right, the popularity of media sources varies significantly across the different platforms. On the left, the Huffington Post, MSNBC, and Vox are prominent on all platforms. On the right, Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Caller, and the New York Post are popular across platforms.Table 1: Most popular media on the right from May 1, 2015, to November 7, 2016Table 2: Most popular media on the left from May 1, 2015, to November 7, 2016Disinformation and propaganda are rooted in partisanship and are more prevalent on social media.The most obvious forms of disinformation are most prevalent on social media and in the most partisan fringes of the media landscape. Greater popularity on social media than attention from media peers is a strong indicator of reporting that is partisan and, in some cases, dubious.Among the set of top 100 media sources by inlinks or social media shares, seven sources, all from the partisan right or partisan left, receive substantially more attention on social media than links from other media outlets.These sites do not necessarily all engage in misleading or false reporting, but they are clearly highly partisan. In this group, Gateway Pundit is in a class of its own, known for “publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.”Disproportionate popularity on Facebook is a strong indicator of highly partisan and unreliable media.A distinct set of websites receive a disproportionate amount of attention from Facebook compared with Twitter and media inlinks. From the list of the most prominent media, 13 sites fall into this category. Many of these sites are cited by independent sources and media reporting as progenitors of inaccurate if not blatantly false reporting. Both in form and substance, the majority of these sites are aptly described as political clickbait. Again, this does not imply equivalency across these sites. Ending the Fed is often cited as the prototypical example of a media source that published false stories. The Onion is an outlier in this group, in that it is explicitly satirical and ironic, rather than, as is the case with the others, engaging in highly partisan and dubious reporting without explicit irony.Asymmetric vulnerabilities: The right and left were subject to media manipulation in different ways.The more insulated right-wing media ecosystem was susceptible to sustained network propaganda and disinformation, particularly misleading negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Traditional media accountability mechanisms—for example, fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups, and cross-media criticism—appear to have wielded little influence on the insular conservative media sphere. Claims aimed for “internal” consumption within the right-wing media ecosystem were more extreme, less internally coherent, and appealed more to the “paranoid style” of American politics than claims intended to affect mainstream media reporting.The institutional commitment to impartiality of media sources at the core of attention on the left meant that hyperpartisan, unreliable sources on the left did not receive the same amplification that equivalent sites on the right did.These same standard journalistic practices were successfully manipulated by media and activists on the right to inject anti-Clinton narratives into the mainstream media narrative. A key example is the use of the leaked Democratic National Committee’s emails and her campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, released through Wikileaks, and the sustained series of stories written around email-based accusations of influence peddling. Another example is the book and movie release of Clinton Cash together with the sustained campaign that followed, making the Clinton Foundation the major post-convention story. By developing plausible narratives and documentation susceptible to negative coverage, parallel to the more paranoid narrative lines intended for internal consumption within the right-wing media ecosystem, and by “working the refs,” demanding mainstream coverage of anti-Clinton stories, right-wing media played a key role in setting the agenda of mainstream, center-left media. We document these dynamics in the Clinton Foundation case study section of this report.The New York Times, 6 September 2017:Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political AdsProviding new evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook disclosed on Wednesday that it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin.Most of the 3,000 ads did not refer to particular candidates but instead focused on divisive social issues such as race, gay rights, gun control and immigration, according to a post on Facebook by Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were linked to some 470 fake accounts and pages the company said it had shut down.Facebook officials said the fake accounts were created by a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency, which is known for using “troll” accounts to post on social media and comment on news websites.The disclosure adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian influence campaign, which American intelligence agencies concluded was designed to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Donald J. Trump during the election. Multiple investigations of the Russian meddling, and the possibility that the Trump campaign somehow colluded with Russia, have cast a shadow over the first eight months of Mr. Trump’s presidency.Facebook staff members on Wednesday briefed the Senate and House intelligence committees, which are investigating the Russian intervention in the American election. Mr. Stamos indicated that Facebook is also cooperating with investigators for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, writing that “we have shared our findings with U.S. authorities investigating these issues, and we will continue to work with them as necessary.”….In its review of election-related advertising, Facebook said it had also found an additional 2,200 ads, costing $50,000, that had less certain indications of a Russian connection. Some of those ads, for instance, were purchased by Facebook accounts with internet protocol addresses that appeared to be in the United States but with the language set to Russian.