We’ve all heard of fake news, and now it is at the centre of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. Pushing beyond the limiting term ‘fake news’, the team consider news in terms of its ‘junk’ status.  Junk news might not be patently false but will voice “ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial” views and tend to conflate opinion with fact.

Research released just before the June 2017 general election in Britain found that 1 in 8 (13%) political links on Twitter were to junk news sites, while 53% were professional.  This compares favourably against parts of the US during the 2016 election where, in Michigan for instance, 1 in 2 links were to junk news. 

Junk news on social media is not an isolated phenomenon; French and German social media users have experienced it similarly to those of us here in the UK. 

The Internet Institute researchers focused on Twitter, a company that provides 1% of tweet data publicly available for research. Facebook is much more opaque with its data, and the fallout of the US presidential election leaves room for concern. 

Cambridge Analytica is a data aggregation and PR company that claims to have 5000 data points on 200 million Americans.  With this, they can advise parties on specifically where, when and how to target voters on social media.  Where a decade ago users might be targeted at the neighbourhood level, now users are individualised.  Four family members in one household might each view different ads on Facebook, designed to evoke specific emotions in line with their personality as determined by the swathes of their data collected online.

As the mining of user data, and the technology to model it, progresses we are left to wonder at what point political advertising becomes political manipulation.

PPE  and HSPS students may want to think about the political implications of the US election in informing terms and increasing the way in which people respond to news. Psychology and Linguistics students may want to think about how ads and articles can be manipulated towards the individual.

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