Unlike in 2016, there was no spike in misinformation this election cycle

A newsy photo of a public figure shows up on your social media feed, with a clickbait-y headline and a provocative comment, all linking to a site with juicy political content. Did you share it?

Somebody did.

It wasn’t a paid ad, or even recommended-for-you content – it was shared by someone you know. The link didn’t take you to InfoWars or Occupy Democrats – you would’ve noticed that. Maybe it went to Western Journal or another unfamiliar domain whose name sounds legit . Did you comment on it or retweet it?

A lot of somebodies did. Often without even reading it.

State-sponsored cyberwarriors and deep-pocketed influence campaigns spread plausible misinformation – what I like to call “iffy” content – as a cost-effective way to advance their social or political cause. Others spread misinformation just to earn ad revenue.

Meanwhile, the big social media platforms struggle to implement fair editorial practices – disclosures and demotions, blocks and bans – to attenuate the spread of misinformation rather than amplify it.

How well have Facebook and Twitter done? Are they helping iffy content reach large audiences? At the University of Michigan Center for Social Media Responsibility, we have started keeping score, going back to early 2016.

We compute a daily “Iffy Quotient,” the fraction of the 5,000 most popular URLs on each platform that came from a large list of sites that frequently originate misinformation and hoaxes, a list maintained by Media Bias/Fact Check. The Iffy Quotient is a way for the public to track the platforms’ progress – or lack thereof.

Measuring iffy content

We saw a major uptick in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Iffy content approximately doubled from January to November.

Engagement with iffy content fell off precipitously after the election. Questionable content peaked again in February 2017, tracking public dialogue over the presidential transition and early executive orders.

Twitter did a better job than Facebook of not amplifying iffy content going into 2017, then Facebook started to improve. By the middle of 2018, Facebook’s Iffy Quotient was lower than it had been in mid-2016, and most days it was lower than Twitter’s.

Why did things get bad back in 2016? One reason for the uptick is that users are more politically activated during an election cycle. That boosts interest in political news – especially in sensational political news. Supply rises to meet that demand – from legitimate sources but also from both propagandists and opportunists seeking ad revenue.