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Oxford’s Junk Science on Fake News

Is National Review “junk news”? A panel of Oxford scientists says yes. Their study [1], “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US,” purports to show that on social media, conservatives are far more likely than others to share “junk news.” That conclusion has earned them glowing write-ups in left-of-center outlets like The Guardian [2], Salon [3], and The Daily Beast [4].

And what’s junk news? According to the study [5], a source is junk if it “deliberately publishes misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news about politics, economics or culture.”

The cry of “fake news” has become a defining weapon in our hyper-partisan age. No doubt there has been a profusion of it as the nation’s storied newsmagazines have ceded prominence to newsfeed-optimized content factories. But “fake news” is also an accusation of moral turpitude. Its scarlet letter signifies that a journalist is not merely wrong—he’s a liar.

It therefore matters quite a bit who bears the scarlet letter, since supposedly these are the people poisoning our body politic, and we’re all better off without purveyors and sharers of fake news. The incentives to apply the label with the imprimatur of “science” to an entire opposing segment of the political spectrum are thus very high.

Did Oxford fall prey to those incentives? To arrive at their finding that conservatives are more likely to share junk news, the study’s authors developed a set of criteria that websites must meet in order to be “junk,” and then examined what kinds of people shared links from those junk sites. To be junk, a website had to exhibit at least three of the following five characteristics:

As worded, that standard feels easy to abuse, but what results did it produce? The scientists’ criteria yielded 91 sites positively identified as junk news. Of these, 78 featured right-leaning content, 10 were apolitical, and a grand total of three—Mediaite, Occupy Democrats, and Shareblue—were left-leaning.

Maybe junk news sites mostly don’t exist on the left? The fact that the authors named three left-of-center sites could indicate that they scoured the internet and found only a few offenders. More likely is that it shows the opposite—if a relatively mainstream liberal site like Mediaite was caught in Oxford’s net, it seems implausible that outlets like Alternet, Counterpunch, Salon, Daily Kos, Truthout, and Democracy Now! slipped through.

Just last month, The Huffington Post, a beloved and enormously influential outlet on the left, had to revamp their editorial policy in recognition that it was producing unverified, ideologically charged content that occasionally crossed into outright falsehood [6]. The problem was so bad that HuffPo’s own announcement [7] of the policy change referenced a “tsunami of false information.” Their editors were effectively admitting, with admirable candor, that they should have been included on Oxford’s “fake news” list.


Maybe these sites were able to escape scrutiny because the “criteria” the Oxford researchers used to tell if a site is real or fake are not criteria at all. They’re flexible enough to produce any result deemed desirable in advance. A determination that a site’s reporting is “biased,” “uses emotionally driven language,” and fails to employ journalistic “best practices” earns it the junk label. The average Republican voter probably thinks that’s a fair description of the New York Times, let alone the Huffington Post.

For a prime example of a biased, emotionally charged story that deviates from journalistic best practices, we need only turn to the Guardian’s coverage of this very study. It came under the headline “Fake news sharing in US is a rightwing thing.” Most who read that will take it as license to make broad generalizations about the reading habits of conservatives. But that generalization would be dead wrong. A more rigorous study [8] conducted by Dartmouth political scientists found that, while fake news sharing during the 2016 election was more common among Trump supporters, it was “heavily concentrated among a small subset of people”—60 percent of fake news consumption came from 10 percent of the population. The Guardian’s headline was an invitation to attribute this behavior to an entire half of the political spectrum. Under the Oxford criteria, that sounds like junk news.

However, we don’t even need to analyze the study this far, because one of its authors gave an alarming interview [9] in which it became clear that even these minimal criteria were not fairly applied. When asked what ensnared National Review, professor Philip Howard said “I think they lost points on commentary masking as news.” If that’s the test, storied publications like The Atlantic and The Economist have been failing it for over a century.

And what about Mediaite, one of the three left-of-center sites included on Howard’s list? “That one was probably scooped up because the far-right uses links to those stories as if they themselves are news items,” said Howard. Now we’ve entered the Twilight Zone—that isn’t even one of the criteria the study claimed to use. But perhaps it’s a disarmingly honest reveal of the study’s heuristic: what sites are our enemies reading?

Eric Wemple, the Washington Post columnist who conducted the interview, concluded that Howard’s statements raise the possibility that the study “merely caught conservatives sharing conservative journalism.” It looks like he’s exactly right.

Studies like this one are dangerous because they needlessly polarize the academy, enlisting it in a political advocacy project that alienates large sections of the population. A recent Pew survey [10] found that a majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. In 2015, just 37 percent of Republicans rated the effect of universities negatively; in 2017, that shot up to 58 percent.

The academy cannot afford to see this number rise any more if it wants to retain broad public authority. Professors and students may wish to turn our institutions of higher learning into progressive fortresses, but the result will be conservatives who build battering rams [11]. Many academics may see themselves as part of The Resistance, but if that mission bleeds into the methodology of their scholarship, their legitimacy will be permanently damaged.

Nicholas Phillips is a research associate at Heterodox Academy and president of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society. Follow him on Twitter at @czar_nicholas_ [12]

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Oxford’s Junk Science on Fake News"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 6, 2018 @ 5:53 am

If these censorious fanatics really want to punch fascists, they’ll cut their fists on broken mirrors.

#2 Comment By Youknowho On March 6, 2018 @ 7:40 am

So, after years of bashing the “liberal media” for bias, and inflicting the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News on the American public, conservatives suddenly get religion when they are at the receiving end?

“A llorar, a la iglesia” If you want to weep, go to Church.

#3 Comment By Duh On March 6, 2018 @ 8:40 am

At this point, idk why on Earth we are even listening to the other side anymore… Oh yeah, maybe it’s cause the Dems have ideologically captured most of the Republicans/conservatives in this country, and society at large. But let’s just turn the other cheek, guys.

#4 Comment By James On March 6, 2018 @ 9:36 am

Western Europe is already far more totalitarian than the States (including heavily censoring their internet and speech), I’ll use my own judgement rather than the Ministry of Truth’s, thanks very much. This is precisely what I do NOT want to see us subject to here. It might require actually utilizing our brains, and I know that pains the average American, but we do not want to live in that society.

#5 Comment By Ryan W On March 6, 2018 @ 10:34 am

“So, after years of bashing the “liberal media” for bias, and inflicting the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News on the American public, conservatives suddenly get religion when they are at the receiving end?”

What a stupid comment. Firstly, what do you think the overlap is between listeners of Rush Limbaugh and readers of The National Review?
Secondly, the article is based on the assumption that making an accusation in an academic context is different from making it in other contexts, and that people who dress up their accusations as “social science” should be held to higher standards of evidence and methodology. Am I to assume you don’t agree with that?

#6 Comment By andy On March 6, 2018 @ 11:27 am

More divisiveness.
If we all hold the news sources that we use accountable, we’ll each be working for a better nation.
Rush listeners are every bit as guilty as people who share from Occupy Democrats without backchecking their reports- no more and less so.
Most people I meet on my travels are decent and fairly willing to talk to people with whom they disagree.

#7 Comment By MM On March 6, 2018 @ 11:47 am

This is reminiscent of the Washington Post’s “scoop” immediately following the 2016 election on websites that spread so-called Russian propaganda. Turns out the firm behind the report wanted to remain completely anonymous. Their selection criteria was so broad that it made everybody to the right of Glenn Greenwald, and some to the left of him, essentially useful idiots for the Russian government:


Charming… that’s journalism for you.

#8 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 6, 2018 @ 12:36 pm

I don’t use social media but, as a European who has been visiting US internet “news” sites for over 14 years, I never cease to be horrified at the level of brazen dishonesty that prevails. The internet is, in practice, liar’s paradise! As far as I can tell, all US internet sites, regardless of their professed ideology, fall foul of all five criteria used in the study, as is particularly clear from the full version of those criteria as set out in the study itself. I say “professed ideology” because one of the oddities of the US internet is that practically all websites peddle the same “party line” regardless of professed ideology, at least in regard to certain subjects. They just dress it up in the jargon appropriate to the ideology in question. Unanimity at that level flies in the face of human nature. That leads me to suspect that practically all US internet sites are being financed from the same source. He who pays the piper calls the tune and when the tune is always the same, then it is logical to assume that the pipers are all being paid by the same persons or groups. Thus, I treat all internet articles as “fake news” and the real interest is who would benefit if I believed them. That is usually far more informative than the articles themselves! The saving grace in all this is that it is so transparent and flat-footed that I can’t imagine anyone is fooled by it.

#9 Comment By Mathew On March 6, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

““So, after years of bashing the “liberal media” for bias, and inflicting the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News on the American public, conservatives suddenly get religion when they are at the receiving end?””

There’s a difference between biased and “junk news”

The NY Times, Washington Post etc are heavily biased but the reporting is still generally factual (just told in a biased way). That doesn’t make it junk just biased.

same would apply of course to conservative outlets like Fox.

#10 Comment By David J. Staszak On March 6, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

Doesn’t the course correction by Huffington demonstrate their professionalism and desire to be credible? This, as opposed to Matt Drudge who (in my mind) infamously said that he didn’t care if what he wrote was factual or not, he was only interested in stimulating discussion.

#11 Comment By Nick Phillips On March 6, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

Mr. Staszak – yes, it does, which is why I called their candor admirable. My point was not how horrible the Huffington Post is, my point was that the “junk news” criteria used by the study should have swept up far more left-of-center outlets than it did. It’s great that HuffPo changed their practices – the question was why they escaped scrutiny when the offending practices were in place.

#12 Comment By MM On March 6, 2018 @ 7:56 pm

Mathew: “Same would apply of course to conservative outlets like Fox.”

You mean the WSJ? Fox is a cable news network which has always leaned more on opinion shows than straight news. The irony is, since Trump’s election the other cable news networks have become more like Fox in that regard.

A number of news anchors on CNN and MSNBC (and NBC) now routinely belch out their opinions in the same breath as reporting, whereas I don’t recall them ever doing that in the past. There are straight newsmen over at fox, Chris Wallace comes to mind. When has he ever done that sort of thing?

#13 Comment By LFM On March 7, 2018 @ 8:17 am

You know who writes, ‘So, after years of bashing the “liberal media” for bias, and inflicting the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News on the American public, conservatives suddenly get religion when they are at the receiving end?’

This is an absurd comment. The liberal media IS biased; fine. Liberals have a right to their biased media, just as conservatives do. There really is not any such thing as ‘unbiased’ news.

Finally understanding this after years of complaint, conservatives went out and founded more of their own media outlets. Ferocious cries from the progressives went up. Far from merely complaining that conservatives were biased, they hollered that their opponents were liars, and tried by any and every means to shut them down. (I don’t remember conservatives trying to shut down the New York Times.)

The accusation of ‘Fake news’ is a new spin on the ‘liars’ accusation, not a sign that conservatives are finally getting their comeuppance. It’s merely more of the same.

Incidentally, I’m sure there’s plenty of fake conservative news. I’ve encountered it from time to time myself. I try to avoid it, so there may well be more out there than I know of. I don’t believe, however, that it’s vastly more prevalent among conservatives than among progressives.

#14 Comment By a commenter On March 7, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

I read the study and found it biased. I’m lucky that I know how to evaluate such studies and it’s unfortunate that most people don’t have the training to do so, and that most instead just accept the conclusions of such studies as truth. But it doesn’t matter. The study will certainly be trotted out in the future whenever progressives feel a need to “prove” that any news (or opinion!) on conservative websites must surely be “junk news.”

#15 Comment By elkern On March 7, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

One quick trick for checking reliability on the web is to click through some links to see if the source really does reinforce the point of the page you start with.

In this case, I checked the two HuffPo links, and the results undermine the credibility of this article.

The first link – “outright falsehood” – points to a HuffPo SOUTH AFRICA page announcing that they shut down a guest blogger whose identity could not be verified. Shady attribution on an opinion piece in a guest blog hardly proves that HuffPo is guilty of “outright falsehood”; in fact, their (speedy?) removal of the piece indicates decency and integrity. I suspect that the link was chosen for it’s incendiary headline (“Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?”) with the intent of raising the ire of TAC readers.

The second link – “announcement” – does include the quoted phrase (“tsunami of false information”), but in the context of a general discussion of the evolution/explosion of “Open Platforms” on the Web. HuffPo was NOT confessing to spreading fake news, but the author of this piece uses that link to “prove” exactly that. (At least the second link was to HuffPo USA). For the record, I gave up on HuffPo a year or so ago when the ratio of fluff to news exceeded my tolerance.

Bottom line: sloppy links undermine credibility, which is amusing in an article about “fake news”.