24/1/2018

Do we believe everything that we read about Donald Trump?

 

With Fire and Fury, describing a chaotic presidency in crisis, hitting the bookshops, it is important to consider how critical we are of information sources in regard to this controversial figure. Do we credulously accept everything we read that supports our own opinion of Trump? How far do we check the ‘facts’ presented to us?

This subject is both timely and important. The contentious nature of Donald Trump and his presidency, the ongoing discussion of the impact of disinformation on the outcome of both the US election and the UK Brexit referendum, and the accusations of ‘fake news’ used by Trump to weaken the power of mainstream news critics, mean that the need to investigate how people check the validity of news items is greater than ever.

The problem is increased by Trump’s attacks on the mainstream news media. For Trump, ‘fake news’ does not necessarily imply misinformation or inaccuracy, but simply news with which he disagrees. Even the most media savvy of readers now find it difficult to clearly distinguish between the various types of mis- and dis-information, including satire and parody, that can be found online, particularly on the subject of Trump. 

So how carefully do we check our news sources about Trump? Does the need for titillation or to confirm our bias ‘trump’ the need to ensure that what we read is true?

Our research investigated a group of users from the UK online discussion forum Mumsnet and their daily discussions of Donald Trump. Investigating four discussion threads that ran soon after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, we found that a group of active participants acted as curators of information for a wider group, collecting material from a range of sources. Some of these participants went further than simply collecting materials – they also commented on and critiqued the material presented by others. In addition, partisan information that supported the group’s particular opinions was far more likely to be curated, from both conservative and liberal sources.

Established in 2000, Mumsnet is seen by both media and politicians in the UK as being particularly influential with affluent, middle-class women and has hosted a number of online chats with political leaders. The Mumsnet discussion boards receive over six million monthly unique visitors. In the two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a series of fast-moving discussion threads (each containing 1000 comments) ran on the site. The majority of comments were critical of Trump, and many posters supported their criticisms with links to information sources. By the second week, commentators were noting that they relied on the threads to keep them updated with news about Trump and that the threads regularly scooped mainstream news sources. One participant commented: “Love this thread - breaking Trump news before Sky/BBC!”

Focusing on the first four threads in this discussion series, we analysed all 4000 posts to identify the information sources used by participants. This yielded 1009 different sources, ranging from mainstream newspaper sites to individual Twitter accounts. The top 15 sources in terms of frequency are given in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: 15 most cited primary sources.

The most frequently cited sources were a mix of mainstream and online-only news media. Twitter dominated the threads. What is represented as Twitter-sourced information in Figure 1 are the direct tweets from individual Twitter accounts, for example Donald Trump, other politicians or individual actors. In addition to these direct tweets, the majority of the links to mainstream media sources used by participants were linked via Twitter. Therefore, Twitter might better be considered as a medium used to further disseminate news.

We found a slick and careful operation where participants crowd-sourced, checked and counter-checked news sources. Sources were discussed carefully, with potential weakness or bias pointed out. Participants often attempted to find other sources that either supported or disproved a news item. Overall, our participants demonstrated a determination to weigh up the validity of each source and to search for evidence for or against its arguments.

Perhaps confounding fears of the creation of a liberal ‘bubble’, participants accessed news items from both the left- and right-wing news media, although the majority of stories were from more liberal news sources. The choice of stories to share was driven more by criticism of Trump than by political affiliation and, in fact, right-wing news sources that criticised Trump might be given more credibility by the participants, although sources such as The Daily Mail and Fox News were still targets of criticism for their overall support of right-wing politics. When such sources were used, participants were more likely to critique or even apologise for the source, but used the news story to demonstrate how even the right-wing press was reporting a particular story.

Social media played a key role in both the delivery of news to participants (for example via the Twitter feeds of mainstream news media) and as a source for their own news-gathering. And it was their use of official and unofficial social media sources that established this group as more than just discussants of news provided by other sources. Participants followed and shared the Twitter feeds of some of the news media’s main protagonists during the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, including Trump, members of his new cabinet, and other politicians. They also accessed raw data from official and unofficial sources and presented the group with qualitative information from their own experiences, such as participation in marches, and the evidence of friends and relations. 

The majority of the mainstream media links shared by the group came from Twitter. Thus, links to stories from newspapers such as The Washington Post or broadcasters such as CNN were sourced on Twitter and shared with the group. However, it is clear that participants were also picking up on the tweets of individual users. Direct tweets from users as diverse as the Swedish Foreign Ministry, Kim Kardashian, J K Rowling and British politician Michael Gove were shared. Some participants sought to access information directly from politicians or government departments rather than waiting for it to be filtered through the news media, with tweets from Justin Trudeau, Betsy deVos, the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of New York reported.

The participants on these threads collaborated to source, present and curate information from a variety of sources, and imposed a clear hierarchy with reference to these sources’ validity and usefulness. Information garnered from mainstream, liberal-leaning broadcasters and newspapers was given the highest level of trust, often being used to support information from other sources, which were seen as less trust-worthy. Information was also presented from conservative-leaning newspapers and broadcasters, but only when it supported the overall anti-Trump tone of the threads – used to prove that even the Daily Mail or Fox News was critical of the new President.

This selective subjectivity was core to the information sourcing and curation performed by the participants. Whilst there was a clear hierarchy of trusted sources, if a piece of information was critical of Donald Trump or added a new aspect to an issue, then they were happy to share it with the rest of the group. Its antecedents would be carefully explained, but these were not seen as a reason not to share the information. Indeed, in some ways, the right-wing leanings of a critic of Trump might be given more validity by the group than more left-wing criticism. However, participants continued to work to verify the information, aiming to support it with information from what were seen as more valid sources, such as the mainstream news media.

So how do such citizen-curation practices impact on the question of the so-called liberal bubble? It is clear that the participants in these threads approached their information gathering and sharing in a subjective frame of mind. Sources that criticised or even mocked Trump were shared with glee, and, while mainstream media sources were preferred, other less verified sources would be used if they took a critical view of the President or his appointees. Nonetheless, the participants were accessing conservative-leaning news media – outside their ‘liberal bubble’ – even if such sources were only recommended to others if they supported criticism of Trump.

It is also clear that there was a limited amount of primary information gathering from right-wing American sources, including the President and his office.  Again, however, such sources were only used to support the overall argument of the threads rather than to present an alternative point of view. Participants were conscious of the subjective nature of their discussion, but were satisfied with this state of affairs. We suggest the term ‘citizen curation’ to describe their work since there are similarities with citizen journalism in the way in which these non-professional participants acknowledged (and sometimes gloried in) their subjectivities whilst at the same time working to share and educate their fellow discussants.

Read the full research paper here.

Image: yuankuei.

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