Sourcing and Automation of Political News and Information During Three European Elections

Voters increasingly rely on social media for news and information about politics. But increasingly, social media has emerged as a fertile soil for deliberately produced misinformation campaigns, conspiracy, and extremist alternative media. How does the sourcing of political news and information define contemporary political communication in different countries in Europe? To understand what users are sharing in their political communication, we analyzed large volumes of political conversation over a major social media platform—in real-time and native languages during campaign periods—for three major European elections. Rather than chasing a definition of what has come to be known as “fake news,” we produce a grounded typology of what users actually shared and apply rigorous coding and content analysis to define the types of sources, compare them in context with known forms of political news and information, and contrast their circulation patterns in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Based on this analysis, we offer a definition of “junk news” that refers to deliberately produced misleading, deceptive, and incorrect propaganda purporting to be real news. In the first multilingual, cross-national comparison of junk news sourcing and consumption over social media, we analyze over 4 million tweets from three elections and find that (1) users across Europe shared substantial amounts of junk news in varying qualities and quantities, (2) amplifier accounts drive low to medium levels of traffic and news sharing, and (3) Europeans still share large amounts of professionally produced information from media outlets, but other traditional sources of political information including political parties and government agencies are in decline.

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