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'Junk news' gets higher engagement before E.U. elections, Oxford study finds

Image: "One Europe for all" demonstration in Vienna
An EU flag flutters during the demonstration "One Europe for all", a rally against nationalism across the European Union, in Vienna, Austria on May 19, 2019. -
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Lisi Niesner Reuters
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Racially divisive rhetoric and misinformation in the form of online news articles has flourished ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections, according to a new study released Tuesday from researchers at the University of Oxford.

Articles stoking anti-immigration and Islamophobic themes have gotten the most attention, with individual "junk" news items receiving as much as four times more engagement on Facebook than articles by mainstream outlets, the researchers found.

The findings are an ominous sign for politicians concerned about the rise of far-right and nationalist groups that are predicted to gain new seats in the elections Thursday through Sunday. Their views can get a wider boost through sharing by sympathizers, aided by automation and foreigner influencers.

"Policy-makers have raised concerns about the potential risk of disruption of and tampering with the forthcoming European elections," wrote Nahema Marchal, Bence Kollanyi, Lisa-Maria Neudert and Philip N. Howard, the researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute behind the study.

"In Europe, there is widespread concern that coordinated misinformation campaigns and computational propaganda are undermining the integrity of political processes."

The Parliament elections typically don't draw a lot of attention, even from Europeans themselves. The body can't propose any of its own laws and a median of only 50 percent of Europeans view the parliament favorably, compared with a 62 percent favorability rating toward the E.U. itself, according to recent Pew Research.

But just like in America, immigration concerns have become a major political issue in Europe. Economic insecurity and changing demographics have created a political rallying point that has been picked up by conservative figures and information outlets, which is then given organic and algorithmic amplification online. The misinformation trends in these elections could be a foreshadowing of future elections.

"The E.U. parliamentary elections can potentially be viewed as a bellwether for broader, transatlantic political trends," said Bret Shafer, social media analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a national security advocacy group. "Just as Brexit was in many ways a precursor to the election of Donald Trump."

"If we want to be better prepared for 2020 than we were for 2016, we need to be playing close attention to elections the world-over, particularly ones that may be of strategic interest to our adversaries."

The sources of the content stoking these divides in the Oxford study differ from some previous findings. Russia is always a top suspect when it comes to online misinformation targeted at elections, but known Russian sources comprised only a handful of links, the researchers found. Along with "junk" news and information sources, known Russian sources counted for only 4 percent of the overall content during the period examined.

"The trend over the past two years as social media companies have shut down Russian influence efforts has been growth in domestic, fringe news content and conspiracy sites," said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an NBC News contributor.

"For Russia, or any other foreign or domestic influence effort, it's more effective, cheaper and more within terms of service to simply amplify organic audience content in line with the influencer's objectives."

To understand the potential threat, the study collected nearly 600,000 tweets relating to the European parliamentary elections between April 5 and 20 and analyzed the web addresses they contained. The researchers also added up the interactions on Facebook for both the top junk and professional news sources within each of the most popular languages.

While there were more links shared from mainstream news outlets and they earned more of the engagement in total, individual articles from the junk news sites had more engagement per story than the mainstream sources.

"This is unsurprising given that junk news sites typically resort to clickbait, emotive language and outrage-mongering in their headlines, and this generates more clicks and engagement on social media," the researchers wrote.

To qualify as junk news or misinformation, a website had to meet at least three of the following study criteria: lack of standards control including clear authorship and ownership, emotionally manipulative style, use of false information and conspiracy theories, partisan bias or mimicking of established news reporting in a deceptive way.

Instead of known official sources of Kremlin disinformation, the majority of the engaging and inflammatory news content came from "homegrown, alternative or hyper-partisan media outlets," according to the study.

Few of the most engaging junk headlines had anything to do with promoting a specific candidate or party or talking about moving away from the E.U., instead revolving around so-called "populist" themes like anti-immigration and Islamophobia.

The analysis is similar to the intelligence community's analysis of the Russian disinformation plan during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which mostly focused on promoting divisive rhetoric and attacking then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, rather than positive statements for any one candidate.

The top-performing junk news headlines in the data set often combined mentions of Muslims, the Islamic faith and immigrants with reporting on terrorism or violent crime and sexual assaults. Several touched on the Notre Dame fire, suggesting it was arson started by Islamic terrorists, or misleadingly playing up that the French reconstruction plan might include a minaret.

"Traffic manipulation and 'junk news' — ideologically extreme, misleading, and factually incorrect information — are widespread during elections and other critical moments of public life to manipulate public opinion," the researchers wrote.

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