Twitter: the ‘alternative news’ champion

by Chris Zappone

A recent piece of research about how real and alternative news is spread across 4Chan, Reddit and Twitter has turned up a surprising fact.

Twitter, the preferred platform of journalists, academics, wonks, is actually the most effective platform for the promotion of alternative (read: “mostly nonsense”) news to be shared on to other platforms. That’s according to analysis of a sample of 1 percent of all publicly available tweets with URLs from 99 mainstream news and alternative news sites.

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Alternative news ecosystem (Zannettou, Stringhini, etc)

The research by Savvas Zannettou and Gianluca Stringhini, and others, “modeled the influence the Twitter, Reddit and 4Chan had on each other and found “that the interplay between platforms manifests in subtle, yet meaningful ways.”

“For example, of all the platforms and subreddits, Twitter by far has the most influence in terms of the number of URLs it causes to be posted to other platforms, and contributes to the share of alternative news URLs on the other platforms to a much greater degree than to the share of mainstream URLs.”

A major factor could be the effect of the bots, while the deep engagement of ‘alternative news’ enthusiasts may also explain the trend. Nevertheless, from a 30,000-foot view, it’s quite revealing.

Think of all the people with blue checks by their name, laboring to bring expertise and enlightenment to the public. Yet they swim in waters polluted with misinformation on an industrial scale. They compete in that space with waves of nonsense, conspiracy theory, ‘news’ generated to cast doubt on verifiable facts.

The researchers culled the tweets from between June 2016 and February 2017 – which would include the final months of the US election. Given this sort of information diet, is it any wonder sensible discussion struggles to be heard.

But even in massive volumes of real and fake news churning over social media, patterns arise. The paper called, ‘The Web Centipede: Understanding How Web Communities Influence Each Other Through the Lens of Mainstream and Alternative News Sources‘, also contained another interesting conclusion.

The researchers discovered “that Twitter and Reddit users tend to post the same stories within a relatively short period of time, with 4chan posts lagging behind both of them.”

“However, when a story becomes popular after a day or two, it is usually the case it was posted on 4chan first.”

This dynamic colors the way the information – both good and bad in quality – is ingested by the wider community, in my opinion.

See the research here.

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