Dietmar Schantin: This is how the internet works for news

When it comes to news, does the internet mainly serve as a distribution platform for major media or is it better for amplifying the influence of fringe media?

According to a major new study of media coverage of the US presidential election, the influence of fringe media - particularly right wing media -- is amplified, primarily because their followers are actively engaged in sharing- and often sharing stories that are totally wrong or completely false.

"Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election," is academic but also readable (those two things don't often go together). And it is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion about how news media derive value (or don't) from digital distribution, and why propaganda and misleading content have become so prevalent.

The study found that 'disproportionate' popularity on Facebook is a strong indicator of highly partisan and unreliable media.

"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," said the study, carried out by researchers at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "These sites do not necessarily all engage in misleading or false reporting, but they are clearly highly partisan."

The study, published on 16 August, is the result on an analysis of more than 2 million election stories published online by approximately 70,000 media sources, between May 1, 2015, and Election Day in 2016, as well as an analysis of how often sources were linked to by other online sources and how often they were shared on Facebook or Twitter.

While partisan sites exist on both the right and the left, the sites on the right are more likely to reject traditional media accountability mechanisms such as fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups and cross-media criticism, the study said. "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," the study said.

"We find that the structure and composition of media on the right and left are quite different," the researchers said. "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 centre of gravity was made up largely of long-standing media organizations steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism."

The researchers identified a distinct set of websites that received a disproportionate amount of attention from Facebook compared with Twitter and media inlinks. "Many of these sites are cited by independent sources and media reporting as progenitors of inaccurate if not blatantly false reporting," the study said. "Both in form and substance, the majority of these sites are aptly described as political clickbait."

Among other findings, the study showed that right-wing media was more successful than left in influencing more mainstream media coverage, resulting in Trump partisans successfully setting the media agenda and coverage.

The data and the full report can be found here.

How the project came about is interesting in itself; a friendly argument between two researchers about how the internet works escalated into a massive data project. There is a good explanation of how the project came about buried deep in this New York Times story about the influence of Breitbart, which is the premier example of how fringe media can obtain outside influence in the digital age.

Dietmar Schantin is founder and director of the Institute for Media Studies,

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