A study of 1.25 million media stories says a Breitbart-centered media ecosystem fostered the sharing of stories that were, at their core, misleading. Steve Inskeep talks to researcher Yochai Benkler.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Researchers say they better understand how we spread around the media coverage of the 2016 election. They analyzed more than 1 million stories shared on social media. And they say they discovered the outsized influence of one particular site. It’s Breitbart, whose former leader Steve Bannon advises President Trump. Researcher Yochai Benkler says his group downloaded masses of data.
YOCHAI BENKLER: And we tried to see, who linked to whom on the web? Who shared on Facebook? How many times was something tweeted? Did people who tweet Breitbart tweet The New York Times or did they retweet Fox News?
INSKEEP: Benkler was drawing a picture of something we can’t really see, how millions of people find and pass on information. He’s a Harvard professor. He also works with the Open Society Foundations. Those are the pro-democracy groups funded by George Soros, the financier who has commonly backed Democrats in the United States.
Benkler’s team illustrated its findings on a chart with different news sites spread from left to right based on their apparent politics. And when I look at that chart, I think of a map of the solar system. There’s all these planets. The New York Times is a planet. And The Wall Street Journal is a planet. There are lots of other planets. And they’re different sizes depending on how busy they were.
What is the biggest planet?
BENKLER: The biggest planet on the right is Breitbart.
INSKEEP: Breitbart the once-renegade website looks like Jupiter, at least in terms of social media sharing during the 2016 campaign. Compared to Breitbart, other conservative news sites look like little moons.
BENKLER: The biggest planets in the rest of the solar system are The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, The Hill and to some extent Huffington Post on the left.
INSKEEP: In Benkler’s analysis, something distinctive happened during the presidential primaries. Breitbart attacked other media sites on the right when they battled with Donald Trump. Some of the sites seemed to lose traction on social media.
BENKLER: So Fox News gets excluded and criticized by the Breitbart-centered network in February and March. In April, it’s RedState and Erick Erickson coming and being criticized. And you see the right wing sort of splitting into two groups. But eventually once they shut down all of the competition, the network settles back around the gravitational pull of Breitbart.
INSKEEP: And that network, once again united, pumped out stories supporting the Republican nominee.
You use a particular word for lots of stories on the partisan extremes. You don’t use the phrase fake news, which has been bent beyond recognition in recent months. Instead you say disinformation. What do you mean by that?
BENKLER: What we’re dealing here is network propaganda, a systematic effort to create and circulate a set of stories, narratives, beliefs that shape how people look at the world.
INSKEEP: What’s an example of that?
BENKLER: A simple example, the second most Facebook shared story on Breitbart gets shared with the links “Jerry Brown Signs Bill Allowing Illegal Immigrants To Vote.”
INSKEEP: Jerry Brown, the governor of California.
BENKLER: The governor of California signs a bill allowing illegal immigrants to vote. Then you go to the site. And you look at the headline. And it says could let illegal immigrants vote. Then you actually read the story. He signed a motor voter law.
INSKEEP: A true story about potential confusion over who has the proper ID to vote is recast as a conspiracy for Democrats to keep power.
BENKLER: Bits and pieces are true. The overall is fundamentally misleading and misdirecting and feeds into this core paranoia over voter fraud and illegal immigration, which are central themes in the Breitbart sphere throughout the election.
INSKEEP: Now, I have to say because I’m busy on social media, I get lots of articles sent in my direction. And a lot of them that seem distorted to me come from the left. Is the left any different than the right?
BENKLER: Looking at our data, there is substantial difference between the left and the right. I think professional journalists, academics, we are all trying to make sure we’re neutral by trying to find similar patterns on left and right. But what we saw was quite substantial difference. And the difference has to do with who you attend to.
INSKEEP: He says visitors to partisan sites on the left also commonly shared lots of traditional media stories with a more balanced view of events. Visitors to sites on the right tended to stay on the right. They were less likely to share traditional media, which many distrust. People who did check traditional media nevertheless found many stories favored by the right. Mainstream media coverage of Hillary Clinton as shared on social media tended to focus on her emails or the Clinton Foundation.
BENKLER: When you look at sentences surrounding Trump, there are the distinct scandals around treatment of women, around the university. But overwhelmingly what you see is immigration, jobs to some extent and the coverage of the substantive issues.
INSKEEP: Are you arguing that the mainstream media was listening to the right wing media and taking their cues from the right wing media whether they realized it or not?
BENKLER: I think probably didn’t realize it. But I think they did follow the agenda that was set by the right wing.
INSKEEP: Researcher Yochai Benkler admits there may be many reasons for that disparity of coverage. As a candidate, Hillary Clinton wasn’t very successful at promoting her substantive views, Trump was. His more outrageous statements, which gained huge attention, often focused on trade or immigration, issues central to his campaign and issues of great interest to sites like Breitbart.