Spread of misinformation increases as major political events lead to polarization

Editor’s Note: As of February 2024 the Misinformation Monitor is now Reality Check, a weekly newsletter on misinformation and media online. Learn more and subscribe here on Substack.
by Gabby Deutch

The big story… Spread of misinformation increases as major political events lead to polarization; U.S., up 20%, takes lead

But First a Quiz:

1. Which of these three healthcare sites has the most engagement online? 
a) MayoClinic.org – the website of the Mayo Clinic healthcare system
b) NaturalNews.com – one website in a network of sites promoting conspiracy theories and selling “natural,” unproven health remedies
c) HealthyFoodHouse.com — a diet and lifestyle website that promotes dangerous “natural remedies”

2. Which of these self-described local news sites is actually funded by a partisan political group?
a)  VADogwood.com
b)  TheMichiganStar.com
c)  AZMirror.com
d)  KalamazooTimes.com
e)  All of the above

3. Which of these British news sites has a perfect rating from NewsGuard?
a)  BBC
b)  Sky News
c)  Manchester Evening News

Read to the end of the next section for the answers.

NewsGuard Red Index on the Rise

This graph shows the percentage by country of all engagement with news on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest from sites NewsGuard has rated Red.
(Anna-Sophie Harling / NewsGuard / NewsWhip)

December saw more social media users share misinformation. The U.S. and the U.K. had the largest increases. Both countries experienced major political events — the impeachment of President Donald Trump and a British election that moved Brexit forward — during which misinformation and conspiracy theories flourished.

  • 7.51% of all engagement with news on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest in December came from sites NewsGuard has rated Red in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Italy — up from 6.69% in November. (Engagement refers to comments, likes, and shares on these platforms, measured with data from NewsGuard’s rankings and social media analytics platform NewsWhip.)
  • Breaking it down: Engagement with unreliable sites remained highest in the U.S., accounting for 9.47% of total social media engagement. That’s a nearly 20% increase from November. Germany and France saw decreases, and Italy remained relatively unchanged.
  • Why we should care: We are seeing misinformation increase around politically polarizing events — and 2020 is going to be a year full of politically polarizing events in the U.S., as Democrats vote to nominate a presidential candidate, after which everyone has to choose between President Trump and the nominee. Experts are right to be concerned about misinformation getting worse at moments like this.

Quiz Answers:

Question 1: (c) The Red-rated HealthyFoodHouse.com gets the most engagement, followed by the Red NatualNews.com. MayoClinic.org ranks far below both. HealthyFoodHouse.com has 62 times the engagement of MayoClinic.org.

Question 2: (e) All of these sites are funded by political activists or politically-aligned nonprofits. The direct or indirect funders are everyone from Tea Party activists to a secretive group of liberal donors tied to a major Democratic Super PAC. Only one of the sites — The Michigan Star — is clear about its political affiliation, although the site is still rated Red overall. (Click to see our Nutrition Labels for the AZ Mirror, VA Dogwood, and Kalamazoo Times.)

Question 3: (c) Sky News and the BBC meet almost all of NewsGuard’s criteria, but they fall short of perfect by failing to include information about who wrote what. The Manchester Evening News does this on all online stories.

Shock Stat: Top U.S. RED Site beats stalwarts like Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and Dallas Morning News

The year 2019 was the first full year that American readers could use NewsGuard to get context for the news they read online, and in the spring, NewsGuard expanded to Europe. Seemingly little-known sites that NewsGuard has rated Red — generally unreliable sites that often publish misinformation — remain far more popular than you might assume.

In three of the five countries where NewsGuard operates, the Red sites that regularly publish false content and had the most engagement in 2019 are the same ones we highlighted in November. How do they compare to well-respected news sites in the same country?

  • LifeNews.com (U.S.): Life News, a site covering abortion legislation that publishes false health claims to advance an anti-abortion perspective, gets more engagement than a slew of well-respected and popular newspapers — among them the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, and the Dallas Morning News. (Click here to see the Nutrition Label.)
  • TruthTheory.com (U.K.): This British site, which publishes conspiracy theories about 9/11 and UFO sightings, ranks below the BBC and the Telegraph, but it receives more engagement than The Times and the popular Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. (Click here to see the Nutrition Label.)
  • EpochTimes.fr (France): The French-language site of the newspaper affiliated with China’s Falun Gong, a spiritual group, goes head-to-head with prestigious French sites like Le Monde and Le Figaro, often getting comparable amounts of engagement. (Click here to see the Nutrition Label.)
  • ImolaOggi.it (Italy): The far-right nationalist site that posts false stories about immigrants gets less engagement than major Italian news sites — including the prominent newspapers La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, and the public broadcaster Rai — but is more popular than most regional and local news sites, such as Sicily’s La Sicilia. (Click here to see the Nutrition Label.)
  • EpochTimes.de (Germany): The German-language Epoch Times site beats out Berlin’s top newspapers. In the past month it received more engagement than the websites for Der Tagesspiegel, the Berliner Morgenpost, and Taggeschau, the main TV news show on Germany’s public broadcaster. (Click here to see the Nutrition Label.)

Mass murderers in two countries cite anti-immigrant conspiracies as inspiration

Anti-immigrant narratives shaped global conversation in 2019 — and spurred three mass shootings in two countries — by reaching sympathetic white readers in their native languages across the U.S., Europe, and beyond.

  • The story: The so-called “great replacement” and related “white genocide” conspiracy theories have gone nearly mainstream in recent years, evolving from their Nazi roots into ideas spread on sites like One America News Network, an increasingly popular American news site, and the far-right Italian site La Veritá. Articles about the theory have proliferated on sites across France after a French writer re-popularized the idea.
    • The theory claims that white people are intentionally being put at risk “of being wiped out through migration, miscegenation or violence,” according to a report from Britain’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that studies violent extremism.
  • Why it matters: In 2019, these racist ideas were tied to mass shootings at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand; at a synagogue in Poway, California; and at an El Paso, Texas, Wal-mart just miles from the Mexican border. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that such attackers are often called “lone wolves,” but they are not — they belong to online communities that promote violence.

Reality check: Demographic shifts are difficult to predict. But white people aren’t going extinct, nor are they victims of genocide. Anti-immigrant propaganda successfully exploited these fears in 2019, with tragic results.

Digital pranksters sow confusion by using copycat news sites for laughs and profits

You could be forgiven for looking at the following set of URLs and having no idea which is a legitimate news source and which is an imposter: CBS15.com or CBS7.com. Express.co.uk or DailyExpresss.com. FranceTVinfo.fr or FrancheTVinfo.fr.

(NewsGuard / DailyExpresss.com)

The story: It’s easy to make a quick buck on the Internet, especially with the growth of digital advertising. Just get people to visit your site and you can make money. Knock-off sites — meant to fool readers who thought they were visiting a real news site — are popping up across the U.S. and Europe, hoping to turn a profit.  

  • Multiple articles about Americans murdering pedophiles appeared on sites including CBS15.com, NBC9News.com, and ABC14News.com in the fall of 2018. Social media users celebrated mothers who killed sex offenders. Except the stories were made up, and CBS, NBC, and ABC have nothing to do with these sites. NewsGuard discovered that these knock-off news sites were part of a network posing as legitimate local TV stations.
    • Many of the hundreds of TV news stations in America have websites with similar names. CBS7.com is in Odessa, Texas. NBC11News.com serves Grand Junction, Colorado. It’s impossible to recognize all of them — leaving readers (except those seeing NewsGuard’s Red and Green icons) vulnerable to imposters like CBS15.com or NBC9News.com.
    • Click to see our Nutrition Labels for these sites: CBS15.com, NBC9News.com, ABC14News.com
  • NewsGuard’s United Kingdom analysts noticed the skyrocketing popularity of a less sophisticated hoax site in October. DailyExpresss.com (see the extra “s”?) aimed to trick people who were looking for the Daily Express, a popular British tabloid.
    • The knock-off Daily Express didn’t publish anything false, instead plagiarizing from British news sites. The site said nothing about its staff, its goals, or its strategy (although NewsGuard traced the site’s owner to India, which was confirmed when the site began posting new content last week about Indian current events in Punjabi).
  • But it labeled all ads — a giveaway that its only goal was profit.
  • Amid protests in France last month about an unpopular pension reform plan, an out-of-touch quote from President Emmanuel Macron went viral: “If you have 200€ to buy gifts, then you don’t need a raise,” he said. Thousands of people shared the original article. But Macron never said that.
    • Readers thought the article appeared on FranceTVinfo.fr, a popular news site, when it was instead published on FrancheTVinfo.fr (Franche means “frank,” or honest, in French), a satire site with the motto “All the news, but fake.” 
    • Unlike the copycat local network in the U.S. or the Daily Express imposter in the U.K., FrancheTVinfo doesn’t claim to publish news. But its design is meant to fool readers, and it works
    • Click to see the Nutrition Label.

Why it matters: Among the nearly 4,000 sites NewsGuard has rated, similar URLs appear frequently, leaving even the most savvy readers confused. Serious or satire? Legitimate local news or made-up content posted by an imposter? Authentic or plagiarized? Certainly no algorithm will be able to master these nuances.

(FrancheTVinfo / FranceTVinfo)

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