The #Election2016 Micro-Propaganda Machine

Jonathan Albright
Nov 18, 2016 · 12 min read
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“Micro-propaganda” network of 117 “fake news,” viral, anti-science, hoax, and misinformation websites.

😱Real Sources / Fake News

After finding evidence that much of the “fake” and hyper-biased news traffic during 🇺🇸#Election2016 was arriving through direct hyperlinks, search engines, and “old school” sharing tactics such as email newsletters, RSS, and instant messaging, I thought I would do a small “big data” project.

⚗Welcome to the Micro-Propaganda Machine

There’s a vast network of dubious “news” sites. Most are simple in design, and many appear to be made from the same web templates. These sites have created an ecosystem of real-time propaganda: they include viral hoax engines that can instantly shape public opinion through mass “reaction” to serious political topics and news events. This network is triggered on-demand to spread false, hyper-biased, and politically-loaded information.

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SimilarWeb Pro website traffic analytics for sample of “fake/viral/hoax/hyper-biased” news sites. Aug 2016–Oct 2016
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Where does the #MPM point? What does it look like?

I looked for patterns in the shared links to find what places these fake news websites seem to be linking to, as well as their most common inbound link destinations, and the structure of how the #MCM was embedded across the wider 🇺🇸#Election2016 mediascape.

Legend

The circle, or “node,” size on the following graph(s) is proportional (1–100 scale) to the number of shared hyperlinks that link into the site from the 117 website sample. The colors are sorted according to actor type.

#ICYMI

The following website data map, called a network graph, can be used reflect on #Election2016. It can help us discover:

  1. 🔎Where and ⚗how this micro-propaganda machine tends to coordinate its resources. By displaying network-level patterns in how these sites are linked to one another, and showing how dense their connections (“edges”) are, we can visualize how this propaganda network is positioned “around” other actors, such as the “lamestream media” and “mainstream” social media platforms.
#Election2016 #MCM network graph — 117 fake news websites; 80,587 shared hyperlinks

🏹1. The Targets: Mainstream Media, Social Networks — and Wikipedia

First, as my previous post noted, the sites with the most inbound hyperlinks (the largest circles on the graph) in this fake news propaganda network are Google, YouTube, the NYTimes.com, Wikipedia, and strangely, Amazon.com. The larger the circle, the more links are coming in from the 117 #MCM network sites.

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Close-up of #MPM network.

🛰2. Mainstream Media Are Mostly “Surrounded”

You can see on the “zoomed out” graph (image below) the #MPM — i.e., ID’d right-wing, fake news, conspiracy, anti-science, hoax, pseudoscience, and right-leaning misinformation sites — in 🔴red.

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Zoomed out perspective of #MPM network

🎥3. Content Sharing and Media Hosting

The #MCM network displays a high number of links to content creation and web asset-hosting services (Wordpress.com, Statcounter.com, WP.com, etc.). These likely are shared to help the website users produce content and measure the impact of their audiences. The zoomed-in views (see images below) also suggest that these fake news sites use social platforms to share as well as coordinate through hyperlinks:

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Significant numbers of hyperlinks are directed towards “sharing resources” on social media platforms
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#MCM “interest clusters” — smaller actors linked to “fake news” websites

🎛4. Material and Digital Production Tools and eCommerce

In the next images (see below), there are an interesting number of links pointing to 👕consumer goods/commerce sites and ✂️digital production tools. These include CafePress (t-shirts), Feedburner (RSS news), and Addthis.com (social sharing scripts).

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Images show links directed to production tools (Cafepress.com) and digital content-sharing tools (Feedburner, Addthis.com)

✅5. Fact Checking and Knowledge Editing

Next, the #MCM network links heavily to a major poll site, Gallup, and crowdsourced fact-checking and reference resources —most notably Wikipedia, Reddit, and Wikimedia. Snopes and other fake news verification sites are in the “liberal” side of the network at the top-middle right (see the first large graph).

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Network “zoom-in” — Gallup polls linked into heavily by MCM sites, as was Wikipedia, Reddit, and Creativecommons.org

The Four Corners of the #MSM

This is a preliminary data analysis, but beyond the specifics — like all network graphs — I feel the the widest picture of the network (again, the first full-size network graph) is intriguing. The network is clearly split into several ideological regions: The ⬅️far left and ↖️top left areas have the most “alt right” and “hard right” actors; the ⏫middle top region shows a strong religious base as well as a strong anti-Islamic component.

The unofficial top ten #MCM link countdown

To wrap up this post, I’m listing the most-shared non-domain links in the “micro-propaganda machine” network. This means the most commonly shared links (i.e., InDegree) out of the 80,587 URLs that link to individual pages (i.e., not the NYT front page, Facebook.com, Google email/searches).

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Buzzfeed “Viral Fake Election” — Facebook engagement analysis
Knight Foundation (Twitter)
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Interview with Paul Horner — Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post (18-Nov-2016)

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