Friday, September 01, 2017

Partisanship, Propaganda and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Echidne's Take.

The Harvard study, called  Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election has now produced its final report, and you can download it at this link.

All the 140 pages are worth reading, and I have done so.  When I finished, I lay my aching head on my desk and attended to some creative swearing.  The findings are that bad.

Here's the abstract of the study.  I have bolded the most crucial findings, but, honestly, the whole report deserves reading:

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.

In ordinary language, with a few additions from my reading of the study, these are the findings worth thinking about:

1.  It's not that all media has become more extreme, but that the right-wing media moved further to the right, met the edge of the known media world, and fell over it into the Nazi-land.  That's what the polite word "asymmetric" means here.

2.  At the same time, the right-wing media has  become much more partisan, less interested in the truth-values of various news items and more interested in providing happy reinforcement for the already existing belief systems of its audiences.  Though similar shifts can be seen among left-wing media, too, they are much, much smaller.

3.  The reference to mainstream media that is "steeped in the traditions and practices of objective journalism" means this:  The media of the left (or center-left) and the media of the right play different games, and the former is hamstrung by those journalistic traditions, at least to some extent, while the right has been free to exploit them to its own advantage.  — More about that under item 8..

4.  Thus the right-wing media played a game in the general election coverage: to get Donald Trump elected, while sizable chunks of the media the study calls center-left or center* saw their task as some type of balanced or objective reporting, even while they believed or hoped that Hillary Clinton would win the election.

In order to produce such an impression of fair-handed reporting, many "mainstream" outlets chose to focus on the Clinton "scandals", to balance all those Trump "scandals" and the fact that Trump's horrible utterances were great click-bait and so seemed to deserve extra coverage anyway. 

5.  Put together a partisan right-wing media (where Trump smelled of strawberries, summer days and winning while H. Clinton came across as an ugly and crooked vampire on the prowl for innocent men's genitals) with a center-left (both-sides-do-it-see-how-objective-I-am) media, and what do you get?

A clear win for Trump in the overall media coverage of the general electionHis issues got attention, hers not so much:

6.  The linking pattern between media outlets differs from the linking pattern of politically-interested individuals on Twitter and in Facebook.  Social media contained more links to the far-left and especially to far-right media outlets, as the picture below demonstrates:

This is partly explained by the greater online participation of individuals who fall to the extreme ends of the line measuring intensity of political beliefs.  At the same time, the sites most likely to produce fake news and create conspiracy stories are found among those extreme end, and they do get attention in the social media:

While there are clear similarities between the clickbait sites on the right and the left, the reception of these sites by other media outlets in their camp and their relative prominence in their respective media spheres rejects the proposition that disinformation is equally endemic on both sides of the political spectrum. There are significantly more marginal sites on the right than on the left that have little credibility within their own media systems, yet are highly popular on Facebook. Six out of the top 10 sites on the right fall into the clickbait profile, compared to three out of ten on the left.

7.  The overall distribution patterns of attention vary among the left and the right.  While the bulk of left's attention was drawn to center-left sources, the bulk of the attention on the right was drawn to far-right sources.  Center-right media sources, in particular, come across as almost invisible in this study.  One reason for this may be increased polarization on the right, another the fact that many of the center-right sites were initially opposed to Trump's candidacy and some still are.

8.  Because the right-wing sites, such as, do not view their role as the production of objective, neutral and balanced reporting on politics, while many center and center-left media sites do, the former gained a clear advantage over the latter and were able to manipulate even the august New York Times and the famous Washington Post into covering the Clinton conspiracies they wanted to have covered. The following table shows the attention the mass media gave to various scandals during the relevant time period:

 Note the prevalent role of Hillary Clinton's emails.  To give it such primacy required the cooperation of the media outlets in the center and on the left.

The so-called traditional liberal media (to borrow the term from the right) failed in its real task of providing objective and balanced coverage by choosing to hype one minor Clinton scandal over all others, in order to achieve the semblance of balanced coverage when the other candidate, Donald Trump,  was clearly unprecedented in incompetence, narcissism and real scandals.  It's as if borrowing your neighbor's lawn mower without permission is to be equated with cutting off his head.

An excellent example of the way the right-wing media used such media sites as the New York Times to legitimize its anti-Clinton arguments is provided by the Clinton Foundation case study in the report (from p. 104 on).

The case study also seems to show a concerted and unified manufacture of "fake news" from right-wing sites such as, their recycling inside the right echo-sphere, and then the mainstream media's puppet-on-the-strings complicity in discussing them once they are prevalent enough on the right. 

If you read nothing else, read that one.  It's a detailed story about how a nothing-burger was served to the American public with nonexistent pickles on the side, and how many of us felt quite well fed afterwards.


*  These definitions are not based on the actual contents of the newspapers, web sites, blogs and so on, but on who links to them.  The report explains the colors in Graph 1 above and the principle which determines whether a particular media outlet is viewed as left-wing, center-left and so on:

The colors on the map reflect the partisan pattern of attention to the media sources based on the sharing behavior of Twitter users who have clear partisan allegiances. The partisanship measure is expressed in quintiles: red for the right, pink for the center-right, green for the center, light blue for the center-left, and
dark blue for the left. The partisanship scores used to color the nodes reflect the share of that site’s stories tweeted by users who also retweeted either Clinton or Trump during the election. These colors therefore reflect the attention patterns of audiences, not analysis of content of the sites.

**  The study measured online coverage in three ways:  First, by the links to various media sources by others in the media industry (editors, journalists, bloggers and so on), and, second, by the links politically motivated users gave various media sources on Twitter and on Facebook.  The first measure is intended to provide some "quality control," compared to the social media links, because people working in the media industry are less likely to link to an utterly fabricated story (except to debunk it).  This is not necessarily true of the partisan sites on the right, including, which turns out to be one of the behemoths in the online media landscape (only to be eclipsed by the New York Times and Washington Post!)