Millions of tweets with fake news and Russian propaganda flooded key swing states in the days leading up to the election, according to a new Oxford University study.
Researchers analyzed social media use in the days leading up to Election Day and found that swing states where Trump went on to win were more likely than the rest of the country to be inundated with fake news, much of it from Russian sources.
According to the study, Twitter users nationwide shared polarizing stories at the same rate as they did articles from professional news outlets. The study found that the rate was even worse than the national average in 27 states. Twelve of those were swing states, including Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan, where Trump went on to win by the slimmest of margins.
It’s impossible to quantify the effect the spread of fake news targeting swing states had, but experts worry that the influx of fake news will deal a blow to the foundations of democracy.
“Many people use these platforms to find news and information that shapes their political identities and voting behavior,” Oxford researcher Samantha Bradshaw told Mother Jones. “If bad actors can lower the quality of information, they are diminishing the quality of democracy.”
“We know the Russians have literally invested in social media,” said Bradshaw, who leads the university’s Computational Propaganda Project. “Swing states would be the ones you would want to target.”
Her team analyzed 22 million tweets posted between November 1-11, 2016, along with data from propaganda efforts in two dozen other countries.
Not surprisingly, they found that much of the propaganda warfare leads back to Russia, where the military is increasing funding for social media operations.
According to Oxford, Russia has a training system to build up a workforce for their cyberwarfare campaign.
“They have invested millions of dollars into training staff and setting targets for them,” Bradshaw told Mother Jones, adding that they provide English language training and talking points with specific messaging.
Aside from a team of paid propagandists, Russia also utilizes bots, which automatically share these news stories and “can also amplify marginal voices and ideas by inflating the number of likes, shares, and retweets they receive, creating an artificial sense of popularity, momentum or relevance.”
Bots make up an enormous amount of Twitter traffic. According to a separate study cited by Oxford, one-fifth of all election-related tweets the month before Election Day were generated by bots.
The researchers also found that Americans, in particular, are much more likely to share fake news. When they analyzed the elections in Germany, they found that bots also seemed to favor far-right candidates but were “minimally active” on Twitter.
The study found that Germans were four times as likely to share news from professional news outlets than polarizing sources like those popular in the US.
Bradshaw believes Europeans may have been better prepared for the spread of disinformation after watching the US campaign play out in 2016.
“I would speculate the Russians overplayed their hand in the US elections,” Bradshaw said. “Voters in the US weren’t really prepared, but that was part of the discourse in other countries like Germany.”
Germany may have caught on, but in the US, ground zero for Russian disinformation warfare, fake news continues to spread like wildfire, now focusing on divisive issues like the NFL racial injustice protests and Black Lives Matter.