A new study from the Oxford Internet Institute claiming that conservatives and Trump supporters are more likely to share so-called “junk news” on social media has a hopelessly slanted methodology, which labels virtually every major conservative news site, ranging from National Review to Breitbart News, as “junk.”
The Oxford study compares the news shared by conservatives and Trump supporters to those shared by progressives, Democrats, and other non-conservative groups. The study claims that on Twitter and Facebook, Trump supporters and the “hard right” share more “junk news” than “all other audiences put together.”
This conclusion makes perfect sense when you look at the list of news sources identified as “junk” by the study’s six researchers.
The list includes:
- Breitbart News
- The Drudge Report
- National Review
- The Daily Caller
- The American Thinker
- Gateway Pundit
- World Net Daily
- The Federalist
- Campus Reform
- Conservative Treehouse
- Danger and Play
- CNS News
- Hot Air
- The Rebel
- Red State
- Frontpage Magazine
- Western Journalism
- Life News
- Washington Free Beacon
Of the 85 “junk news” sites listed by the authors, only 7 — Bipartisan Report, NY Daily News, ShareBlue, Occupy Democrats, Crooks and Liars, Hotpage News, and Odyssey Online — have a clearly left-wing slant. In other words, just 5.95 percent of the sources on the study’s “junk news” list are left-wing.
In other words, the authors’ conclusion that Trump supporters and right-wing pages share more “junk news” than all other groups combined is totally believable. If over 90 percent of the sites on your “junk news” list are conservative, it makes perfect sense!
The researchers have also included items on the list that aren’t even news sites. For example, they include Pastebin, a platform where users can create quick, anonymous posts that can then be linked around the internet. Pastebin is a platform, not a news site. Classifying them as “junk news” is like classifying Blogger or Tumblr as “junk news.” It doesn’t make sense, because they aren’t news.
Other additions are similarly bizarre: Rasmussen Reports, one of America’s most respected polling organizations, somehow made it onto the list. Again, not a news site, but also not “junk” by any definition of the word.
Another site on the list, “mostdamagingwikileaks.com” isn’t a news site either, but a landing page featuring information about Wikileaks and a list of their highest-profile releases during the 2016 election campaign. Given that none of those leaks have been debunked, it’s again unclear how the site can be classified as “junk.”
The authors claim that sites on their “junk news” list must fail on on at least three of the following five criteria:
Professionalism: These outlets do not employ the standards and best practices of professional journalism. They refrain from providing clear information about real authors, editors, publishers and owners. They lack transparency, accountability, and do not publish corrections on debunked information.
Style: These outlets use emotionally driven language with emotive expressions, hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, misleading headlines, excessive capitalization, unsafe generalizations and fallacies, moving images, graphic pictures and mobilizing memes.
Credibility: These outlets rely on false information and conspiracy theories, which they often employ strategically. They report without consulting multiple sources and do not employ fact-checking methods. Their sources are often untrustworthy and their standards of news production lack credibility.
Bias: Reporting in these outlets is highly biased and ideologically skewed, which is otherwise described as hyper-partisan reporting. These outlets frequently present opinion and commentary essays as news. •
Counterfeit: These outlets mimic professional news media. They counterfeit fonts, branding and stylistic content strategies. Commentary and junk content is stylistically disguised as news, with references to news agencies, and credible sources, and headlines written in a news tone, with bylines, date, time and location stamps.
The authors do not explain how they were able to determine the editorial standards of over 85 sites, or how Rasmussen failed three of their five tests, or why non-news sites are on their list, or why only 5.95 percent of the sources on their list are left-wing.
Even the Washington Post‘s media reporter, Erik Wemple, is confused by the study’s list, noting that multiple sites classified as “junk news” have been sources for “very reliable information” in the past. “The apparent overclassification of some right-wing sites raises the possibility that the study, at least in part, merely caught conservatives sharing conservative journalism” concludes Wemple.
The rest of the mainstream media uncritically embraced the study’s findings, running headlines like “Hard Right Dominates Use of Fake U.S. News, Oxford Study Finds” (Financial Times), “Study: Trump Supporters More Likely To Share ‘Junk’ News” (Daily Beast), and “Trump Supporters Share More Fake News Than Anyone Else, Study Shows” (The Independent).
The Washington Post also ran a story in its analysis section that references the study, entitled “Fake News And The Trumpian Threat To Democracy,” which uncritically reports the study and fails to reference Wemple’s critique, which is confined to the opinion pages.
Perhaps the most amusing report on the study was from The Inquisitr, a news website, which ran the headline “Donald Trump Supporters Biggest Consumers of Fake News, Says Oxford Study.” I can only assume that neither the author of the piece nor his editor actually read the study, because they don’t seem to have noticed that The Inquisitr is also included on the “junk news” list!
This is the second study from a major academic institution this week that attempts to attack the reliability of conservative media. The other, from researchers at Yale, identified 14 right-of-center and just 6 left-of-center news sites as “hyper-partisan,” while listing Huffington Post and Salon as “mainstream.”