Junk news as a tool to manipulate public opinion

Published: 9 October 2019

In Europe, junk news is widely used to manipulate public opinion, Lisa-Maria Neudert, Co-Principal Investigator at the Computational Propaganda project, Oxford Internet Institute.

The spread of misinformation using advanced technologies via different social media outlets is widely seen as posing a growing threat to democracy in Europe and throughout the world, especially in the run-up to elections. Civitates supports a project that aims to understand how misinformation flows in Europe and how the quality of public discourse can be improved.

Philip Howard is Director of the Oxford Internet Institute which together with the Oxford University runs the project on ‘Computational Propaganda’. Lisa-Maria Neudert is Co-Principal Investigator at the Computational Propaganda project, where she focuses at the nexus of political communication, technology studies and governance.

What exactly is the problem?
 In Europe, we are currently seeing the evolution of misinformation. In 2016 we had junk news on Twitter and Facebook. Now we see more visual forms of misinformation like memes, gifs, and manipulated video that spreads over private messenger applications.
Philip: Junk news is widely used to manipulate public opinion. As part of this project we examined the political news that social media users were sharing across seven European languages. We collected and analysed nearly 600,000 tweets in April 2019, related to the European elections in May.

Where there any striking conclusions?
 The most successful junk news stories tend to revolve around populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment. For example, mentions of Muslims and immigrants were coupled with reporting on terrorism or violent crime in nearly half of the stories analysed. It surprised us that only few successful junk news stories actually expressed Euroscepticism or directly mentioned European leaders or parties.

What did you do with the findings?
 In general, it takes a long time before academic research results are published. But we wanted to produce initial findings speedily so that they would be as useful as possible. Journalists could then use that information in their coverage and inform the public just before they were called on to cast their vote. We wrote the findings up within 10 days and drew media coverage from many big mainstream news operations, including the BBC (UK), Der Spiegel (Germany) and Le Monde (France).

What will be the next steps?
Philip: Attempts to regulate social media have already taken place across Europe, for example by forcing social media to disclose financial information on the advertising of political campaigns, criminalising hate speech and illegal content and supporting media education.We want to help regulators find a balanced response, so we have planned multiple briefings in European capitals to present regulators with data on the latest misinformation trends.

How did you (personally) got involved in this work?
Lisa-Maria: I am a political communication scientist and I was researching the new populist wave in Europe and their communication strategies, so this project was a logical next step.

What is your dream with regard to political communication?
Lisa-Maria: Political communication research must have a voice when it comes to development of technology. I am a tech optimist and believe that technology and social media can be a driver for democracy. But I am convinced that we will need to shift our culture from “move fast and break things” (formerly a FB motto which was changed a couple of years ago) to evidence-based development that carefully considers consequences.