Fewer than 4% of news sources shared on Twitter ahead of the 2019 European Parliamentary elections were ‘junk news’

■             Twitter users shared far more links to mainstream ‘professional’ news outlets than junk news (34%), except in the Polish language sphere, where junk news made up 21% of traffic.

■             While many more Facebook users interact with mainstream content, individual junk news stories can still hugely outperform professionally-produced stories, drawing as much as four times the volume of shares, likes and comments than mainstream content.

■             The most successful junk news stories tend to revolve around populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment, with few expressing Euroscepticism or directly mentioning European leaders or parties, according to analysis.

In the first study of its kind in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), University of Oxford have found that, despite concerns, overall levels of ‘junk news’ circulating in the run up to the 2019 elections are relatively low. In Poland, however, junk news stories were found to be shared to a greater extent than news from professional outlets, by a ratio of 1.6 to 1.

While junk news sites were less prolific publishers than mainstream outlets during the campaign, their stories tend to be much more “engaging”. The University of Oxford team found individual junk news stories to receive more likes, shares and comments than those from ‘professional’ outlets.

Professor Philip Howard, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford said: “The good news here is that overall, levels of junk news circulating around the campaign have been minimal, perhaps showing that social media sites are paying closer attention to misinformation stories being published or shared on their platforms.

“However, when junk news does get posted on Facebook, people are still likely to share and like it without questioning, which is still a significant worry, particularly if there is an impact on political decision making.”

“Almost none of the junk we found circulating online came from known Russian sources” added Nahema Marchal, co-author of the report and researcher at the OII.  “Instead, it is homegrown, hyper-partisan and alternative media that dominate. We were also very surprised to not find more stories attacking European politics and leaders.”

The most popular junk news stories focused on suggestions that a Dutch politician wanted a halal beach in The Hague, the story of a child migrant who claimed to be 17 actually being 47 years old, and a Muslim girl being killed by her family and dumped in a river for being too ‘Westernised’. Other popular ‘junk’ stories included allegations French President Macron had used public tax money to finance ISIS jihadists and Syrian camps, and a reported offer by Russian President Putin to provide financial assistance to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral.

The research team examined 584,602 tweets related to the European Parliamentary elections from 187,743 unique users over a two-week period ending 20 April 2019. The team also analysed the volume of Facebook interactions with 70 junk news and professional news outlets between April 5th and May 5th and conducted a thematic analysis of the most popular junk news stories. Junk news was classified as sources publishing deliberately misleading, deceptive or incorrect information, typically in an ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial fashion, and meeting a variety of criteria related to professionalism, style, credibility, bias, and counterfeiting.

Junk News Aggregator

Voters interested in examining the problem of junk news in real time can use the OII Computational Propaganda project’s Junk News Aggregator, which has been updated for the European elections by researcher and creator Dr Mimie Liotsiou. The updated Aggregator tracks junk news on Facebook as it happens across seven languages, making visible the quantity and content of junk news, as well as the level of engagement. Users can search keywords, such as candidate names, to reveal what is being shared, in real time as well as up to a month previous. In addition to the main explorer tool, the Aggregator offers an interactive visual grid and a top-10 snapshot of the day’s most engaged-with junk news.

For more information or to request an interview, please contact Mark Malbas on 01865 287220 or email press@oii.ox.ac.uk

Notes for editors

Computational Propaganda project research studies are published on the ComProp website.