It's no secret at this point that social networks were exploited to influence the 2016 election, with Twitter and Facebook being the hardest hit. While Facebook continues to reel from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to more recent hacks affecting tens of millions of users, Twitter has quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) engaged in its own war against fake news.
But while Twitter has been mowing through account suspensions and deletions like the Grim Reaper himself, a recent study funded by the Knight Foundation indicates that the lion's share of Twitter's problem accounts actually remain untouched.
With funding from the foundation, Matthew Hindman at George Washington University led a team that collaborated with Graphika, a "social media intelligence firm" that provided "tools and mapping methods." These resources were applied to over 10 million tweets produced by 700,000 Twitter accounts.
The upshot may take a moment to absorb: "[M]ore than 80 percent of the disinformation accounts in our election maps are still active as this report goes to press. These accounts continue to publish more than a million tweets in a typical day."
Digging into the numbers
Just a few weeks ago, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey indicated that there had been a coordinated effort on Twitter to use fake news to influence voters, and the Knight-funded study appears to back up this conclusion.
The study reports that "Sixty-five percent of fake and conspiracy news links during the election went to just the 10 largest sites." Furthermore, "Both the election-eve and post-election maps of accounts that spread fake or conspiracy news reveal an ultra-dense core of accounts that follow each other."
The study also ranked the accounts according to how many followers they had, and one-third of the 100 most popular accounts "show evidence of automated activity." When the researchers looked at a random sampling of all Twitter accounts, evidence of automation vaulted to 60 percent, (though not all of that is necessarily linked to the 2016 election or its surrounding topics).
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Who is the Knight Foundation?
The Knight Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing grants for research, the arts, and technological advancements in media. In 2012, the most recent year for which there is public data, the foundation distributed $112,063,584 in grant money. In 2014, it possessed roughly $2.5 billion in assets.
The foundation was created in 1950 by John S. Knight and James L. Knight, who went on to help create the Knight Ridder media empire. This empire was purchased by The McClatchy Company in 2006 for $4.5 billion.
- A study conducted at George Washington University, in collaboration with social media intelligence firm Graphika, concluded that more than 80 percent of Twitter's 2016 election trolls are still active.
- This aligns with recent public statements made by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who said in reference to the 2016 election, "We have definitely been utilized to manipulate people."
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- Twitter hunts down fake accounts to help safeguard midterm elections (CNET)
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- Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic)