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As the country was reacting to the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, concerns soared about the problems of misinformation or so-called “Fake News” spreading across social media. To understand the scale and shape of a problem that was incredibly opaque, we began intensive research to collect and analyze the sources of this misinformation.
What we found almost immediately was that the scale and diversity of misinformation was much larger than we had expected. To deal with this scale, we developed a systematic approach to gather and analyze the information so that we could effectively report on it. This process led us to create a tool we call NewsTracker, which helped identify new stories that would give our viewers the necessary context to make sense of this phenomenon.
We built NewsTracker to collect a variety of sources of misinformation on Facebook and aggregate the stories published so that we could have a clearer sense of the different types of misinformation out there. We wanted to know how frequently it was published and what strategies and narratives were employed to engage audiences on Facebook.
To do this, we built a database of misinformation sites, identified their Facebook pages, and found any related Facebook pages that also shared the content. We used the Facebook API to collect all the stories posted to these pages as well as their engagement data — how many times users liked, shared, and commented on the stories. We continuously monitored this feed to identify patterns in and assess the substance of the posts.
We noted that misinformation comes in many forms. Beyond the “fake” or “false” stories that had captured everyone’s attention, we found many other forms of misleading yet hard to debunk statements, as well a huge volume of hyper-partisan spin masquerading as news content. We found publishers all over the country and all over the world. We saw new websites appearing daily to publish what we have come to call “junk news.” (Like junk food, junk news has little nutritious value.)
Through using NewsTracker for our reporting, we have been able to identify trends in the way these junk news publishers behave and how they respond to changes made by Facebook. Along the way, we’ve found some interesting stories that we’re sharing with our viewers through this series on junk news.
The project itself started out as a tool for our own reporting, but we recognized early on that it might have value beyond the NewsHour, and looked outside for support to continue developing it. Last summer, the Knight Foundation awarded the project a prototype grant to support its continued development. Soon, the tool itself will have a new home: the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where it will continue to be developed to support research and investigation into misinformation on social media and support newsrooms interested in covering misinformation and its impact on our democracy.
In the coming weeks we’ll share more about the project and what we’ve learned through our reporting here on the PBS NewsHour.
Cameron Hickey is an Emmy Award winning journalist, cinematographer and hacker focused on human rights, poverty, and science. He has produced and shot content for the PBS NewsHour, NOVA, Bill Moyers, American Experience, WNET, PBS World, and the New York Times. Hickey lives in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.
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