After each new Trump travesty, my friends and family have taken to asking each other the same question: “Who the hell could still support this buffoon? How stupid would someone have to be to drink this particular Kool-aid?”
A recent study conducted by Oxford University apparently answers that (not-so-rhetorical) question.
Low-quality, extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial news published in the US was overwhelmingly consumed and shared by rightwing social network users, according to a new study from the University of Oxford.
The study, from the university’s “computational propaganda project”, looked at the most significant sources of “junk news” shared in the three months leading up to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address this January, and tried to find out who was sharing them and why.
“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the researchers concluded. On Facebook, the skew was even greater. There, “extreme hard right pages – distinct from Republican pages – share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”
The researchers monitored 13,500 politically-active US Twitter users, and a separate group of 48,000 public Facebook pages, and looked at the external websites that they were sharing.
The findings speak to the level of polarisation common across the US political divide. “The two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, prefer different sources of political news, with limited overlap,” the researchers write.
The study did not find a high percentage of social media penetration by the Russians, but it did identify clear political preferences of those who consumed junk news.
But there was a clear skew in who shared links from the 91 sites the researchers had manually coded as “junk news” (based on breaching at least three of five quality standards including “professionalism”, “bias” and “credibility”). “The Trump Support group consumes the highest volume of junk news sources on Twitter, and spreads more junk news sources, than all the other groups put together. This pattern is repeated on Facebook, where the Hard Conservatives group consumed the highest proportion of junk news.”
There has always been a credulous segment of the American public; given our embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy, it shouldn’t surprise us that a percentage of voters unhappy with their position in the polity would “choose the news” that confirmed their biases. As a colleague of mine recently wrote (citations omitted),
The flourishing of scientific polling and the increased sophistication of social science research methods have provided scholars with an opportunity to put these concerns to the test, and the results have largely confirmed the worst fears of political philosophers. Foundational studies of voters and elections published in the mid-20th Century documented voters’ ignorance, wishful thinking, and reliance on simple cues like partisanship, and nearly 8 decades of subsequent research has largely confirmed those conclusions.The democratic polity is not now and has never been made up of highly knowledgeable, informed and engaged civic citizens.
And there are plenty of charlatans, would-be power-brokers and snake-oil salesmen ready to lead the willing down the garden path…..