40,000 online sources; 4 million political stories.
The above analysis was made possible due to three academics working together from data collected through Media Cloud, an open platform whose founder and technical architect, Hal Roberts, is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. Together with Robert Farris, a sociologist at UC-Davis, and Yochai Benkler, a professor of law and industrial information at Harvard, the three wrote a book, Network Propaganda, published by Oxford U. Press in October.
The authors analyzed how political news was linked, liked, and shared from 2015 to 2018 and how the news media either enlarged or checked the profusion of varying falsehoods. They also analyzed case studies of conspiracy stories, rumors, and straight out disinformation.
Their assumption the “left” and “right” (liberals and conservatives) would be equally biased wasn’t borne out by the data. Instead, they found that on the “right” even the major news organizations (Fox and Breitbart) “do not observe norms of truth-seeking.” Whereas, for instance, from the “center-right,” (like The Wall Street Journal) through the “center-left,” interconnected news organizations “operate under the constraint of established journalistic norms.”
On the “right,” news organizations actively promoted made-up stories, such as Pizzagate (Democrats supposedly operating a child trafficking ring out of a pizza shop), whereas on the left the false stories “were generally not relayed to a wider public.”
Nor did the right-wing media correct falsehoods or hold their journalists accountable for spreading them, whereas the rest of the media did correct mistakes and disciplined or even fired those responsible for making the errors.
This failure to not correct falsehoods, made the “right” more susceptible to “home-grown propaganda,” as well as to Russian disinformation and fabricated “clickbait” (attention grabbers) that would appeal to the “tribal narrative.”
Ironically, mainstream journalism, the authors argue, in 2016 basically aided the “right” by trying to be “balanced” in their own coverage and by wanting to get “scoops.” The press felt it couldn’t “maintain balance” if they did “hard-hitting” stories on Trump. So they did hard-hitting stories on Hillary Clinton to the point where their negative coverage was greater than their positive, 62 percent to 38 percent.
The “right” was able “to help satisfy” this market for scoops. The stories on the Clinton Foundation illustrate how The New York Times was susceptible to “scoops,” by insinuating, based on a book (Clinton Cash) by Breitbart editor Peter Schweizer, that in exchange for money Clinton “enabled a Russian firm to acquire control of American uranium assets.” It published the story although the Times had no evidence that she had intervened. In fact, a committee representing nine government agencies approved the deal, but that and other “overwrought and often misleading pieces in the mainstream press” on her and the DNC e-mails became “some of the most widely shared news items in 2016” and so helped the Republican effort.
The Berkman Klein Center website on the book concludes, “Since the 1970s, institutional, political, and cultural patterns in American politics interacted with technological change to create a propaganda feedback loop in American conservative media. This has marginalized centre-right media and politicians, radicalized the right wing ecosystem, and rendered it susceptible to propaganda efforts, foreign and domestic.”
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College. She is wholly indebted to Paul Starr of Princeton for his incisive review of Network Propaganda in the March 21, 2019 issue of The New York Review of Books.