Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Scoop: Verified tweeters smashed records sharing deceptive content

Illustration of a newspaper that reads "BREAKING NEWS" on a fishhook.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Verified accounts on Twitter shared more content from deceptive websites than ever in 2020, according to new research from the German Marshall Fund shared exclusively with Axios.

Why it matters: Verified accounts are supposed to help social media users seek out trustworthy information and know who they're hearing from. If verified users constantly share false information, it defeats the purpose and reinforces false narratives.

On Facebook, interactions with deceptive content are also at an all-time high. GMF measured overall interactions on that platform, not just from verified accounts.

  • GMF defines "deceptive content" as false or manipulative according to NewsGuard, a service that ranks websites on their reliability.

Between the lines: The findings underscore the uncomfortable reality that certain conservative media outlets tend to be among the most unapologetic purveyors of false or misleading information, with Daily Wire, Newsmax, The Federalist and Gateway Pundit all ranking as deceptive sites.

By the numbers: Deceptive content has steadily grown in popularity since 2016, according to GMF's research.

  • In Q4 2020, GMF measured 1.2 billion interactions with deceptive sites on Facebook. In Q4 2019, that number was 941 million.
  • In Q4 2020, GMF measured verified accounts sharing (tweeting or retweeting) material from deceptive sites on Twitter 47 million times, up from 28 million in the prior-year period.

What's happening: False information about the election outcome and COVID-19 mostly drove the increase in shares of deceptive information, the research shows, with more people engaging with deceptive information than ever in the past.

  • Overall, engagement with deceptive sites is more than 2x higher than before the 2016 presidential election, though GMF credits Facebook for limiting spread of deceptive content to a certain extent by boosting more reliable information after the election.

What they're saying: "This month's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol demonstrates why we need to change the incentives of social media platforms immediately to boost trustworthy information and slow the spread of disinformation," said Karen Kornbluh, who leads GMF's Digital New Deal project.

  • "If we don’t, democracy and public health will be undermined further in 2021."
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