Midterm Misinformation Trends and the Most Shared News Stories on Social Media

“Are midterm voters being fooled by made-up stories?…My impression is that the specific ‘fake news’ problem is less pronounced this election season. But the threats have morphed and multiplied…” -Brian Stelter, CNN

For anyone concerned about the spread of mis- and disinformation, the U.S. midterm elections were seen as a test of whether, in the past two years, we’ve learned anything about how to deal with them.

Good news: we kind of have! Unlike in 2016, this election cycle did not have a huge spike in misinformation.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t any misinformation floating around. Among other things, there were claims by President Trump that illegal immigrants would vote in droves, there was a post from the North Dakota Democratic Party suggesting that state residents could lose their hunting licenses in other states if they voted in North Dakota and there were ads from a mysterious Facebook group that used images and in some cases, fabricated quotes, from Green Party candidates to convince progressives to turn away from the Democratic Party.

But it could have been a lot worse. The night before the election, Facebook shut down 115 accounts for suspected “coordinated inauthentic behavior” linked to foreign groups trying to interfere with the midterms. The month before, it removed 82 pages, accounts and groups aimed at stirring up social strife in the United States.

Facebook and Twitter were much more vigilant about stopping the spread of misinformation this election cycle, but the nature of misinformation itself has fundamentally changed in the past two years. As CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote a few days before the election:

“Are midterm voters being fooled by made-up stories? I’ve been talking with experts and scouring social media websites for answers. My impression is that the specific ‘fake news’ problem is less pronounced this election season. But the threats have morphed and multiplied.

“Here’s what I mean: I’m not seeing simplistic ‘Candidate X said Y’ lies showing up in the newsfeed. Facebook has staffers and machines and fact-checking partnerships in place to reduce that pollution. Twitter has been taking action too.

“But the online environment is still polluted.”

About a week before the election, we decided to take a look at one aspect of that pollution: the most shared midterm-related news stories on social media.

Last month, my organization, the First Amendment Center, in partnership with media start-up Our.News, released an online tool called Newstrition, to help consumers fact-check the news themselves.

Our development of Newstrition was strongly influenced by research that demonstrated that the best fact-checkers read laterally  —  meaning they evaluate a story’s credibility by getting context and perspective from other sites, instead of just staying within the original website in question. Our goal was to make that context and perspective easily accessible to someone browsing the news online.

Newstrition gives users some quick, verified information about who published a particular article. It also displays the sources linked to in the article and presents other sources that support, debunk or provide context. It also reports whether other Newstrition users think the story is news, opinion, clickbait or satire. One thing it doesn’t do? It won’t tell you whether the article, or media outlet behind it, is good, bad or trustworthy. One reason for that is because we’re of the belief that making those judgments doesn’t persuade people we’re right so much as it causes them to double down on whatever it is they initially believed. But the other reason is that making those judgments is really, really hard.

More on that in a bit.

Last week we decided to use Newstrition’s tools ourselves to take a look at the most shared articles about the 2018 midterm elections, based on metrics from BuzzSumo and Social Animal. Who were the publishers behind them? What kind of content was being shared? News? Opinion pieces? Full-blown hoaxes? We aggregated general news about the midterms as well as news specifically pertaining to five close Senate races  —  Arizona, Florida, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.

This wasn’t an in-depth analysis of the entire online information ecosystem. We didn’t look at political ads or viral posts and tweets, but limited ourselves to articles that had the most engagements on social media on any given day. What follows are simply my own observations about the types of stories that made the rounds on social media about the midterms in the week leading up to them.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

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