Politiken: Asymmetric reach of pro-Russian misinformation – University of Copenhagen

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12 June 2018

Politiken: Asymmetric reach of pro-Russian misinformation

Summary of article by Frederik Hjorth and Rebecca Adler-Nissen in Politiken (8 April 2018).

Ideological asymmetry of reach of misinformation on Twitter: Compared to liberal Americans, conservatives were significantly more exposed to Pro-Russian misinformation regarding the crash of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 aircraft over eastern Ukraine.

On July 17th, 2014, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed near the city of Torez in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine. The plane carried 283 passengers and 15 crew members, all of whom died in the crash.

Discussion of the crash on Twitter began shortly after the crash and spread rapidly; over the following hour, more than 10,000 tweets in our sample alone discussed the crash. Twitter users discussed what caused the crash – was MH17 shot down by pro-Russian separatists from the ground or was it the Ukrainian military that shot down the aircraft?

In September 2016, an international investigation concluded that the MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists with a Buk missile transported from Russia to eastern Ukraine. Consequently, we can now with great certainty consider stories saying that the Ukrainian military was responsible for the downing false (misinformation).

In the study of the Twitter communication flow surrounding the MH17 crash (with data of more than 8.000 Twitter accounts who discussed the crash and their more than 12.5 million followers) Hjorth and Adler-Nissen find that exposure to misinformation is concentrated among the most conservative individuals. Looking specifically at information about the MH17 crash, 7 pct. of the information exposed to the most liberal was misinformation, whereas the share was 45 pct. for the most conservative individuals. In other words, the reach of online pro-Russian disinformation into US audiences is distinctly ideologically asymmetric.

The findings are important not only for our understanding of the spread of misinformation, but also for how to make potential anti-fake news campaigns.