Sourcing and Automation of Political News and Information over Social Media in the United States, 2016-2018
Social media is an important source of news and information in the United States. But during the 2016 US presidential election, social media platforms emerged as a breeding ground for influence campaigns, conspiracy, and alternative media. Anecdotally, the nature of political news and information evolved over time, but political communication researchers have yet to develop a comprehensive, grounded, internally consistent typology of the types of sources shared. Rather than chasing a definition of what is popularly known as “fake news,” we produce a grounded typology of what users actually shared and apply rigorous coding and content analysis to define the phenomenon. To understand what social media users are sharing, we analyzed large volumes of political conversations that took place on Twitter during the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2018 State of the Union address in the United States. We developed the concept of “junk news,” which refers to sources that deliberately publish misleading, deceptive, or incorrect information packaged as real news. First, we found a 1:1 ratio of junk news to professionally produced news and information shared by users during the US election in 2016, a ratio that had improved by the State of the Union address in 2018. Second, we discovered that amplifier accounts drove a consistently higher proportion of political communication during the presidential election but accounted for only marginal quantities of traffic during the State of the Union address. Finally, we found that some of the most important units of analysis for general political theory—parties, the state, and policy experts—generated only a fraction of the political communication.