Elon professor's research on 'fake news' ecosystem generating international attention

Jonathan Albright, assistant professor of communications, is exploring the connections between websites distributing "fake news" and propaganda and the tools used to track reader preferences. 

Since Election Day, Jonathan Albright has dedicated countless hours to mapping connections between right-wing websites promoting “fake news” and propaganda and pulling back the curtain on how these sites are tracking the habits and preferences of readers. That work is now being featured in a broad range of media outlets, including a deep dive article appearing Sunday, Dec. 4 in The Guardian online’s highly regarded technology section and featured on the cover its Sunday sister print publication, The Observer, the oldest Sunday newspaper in the world. 

​​Albright, assistant professor of communications at Elon, extracted data from hundreds of websites which had been publicly identified to circulate fake news and propaganda to explore how they are linked to one another and understand how fake news is spread online. The result was an interconnected network that seemingly boosts “fake news” content in places like search engines, creating a broader audience than many expected these “fake news” items to have. Albright also identified networks of trackers collecting user data from visitors to these sites, including information that could be used to tailor “fake news” content to voter lifestyle and ideology.

Albright’s findings have now been featured in the Dec. 4 piece in The Guardian titled, “Google, democracy and the truth about internet search” written by reporter Carole Cadwalladr, a leading U.K. technology and society reporter. The article, which appeared in the newspaper’s tech section, had been shared on social media close to 25,000 times as of midday Monday. A series of posts Albright wrote about his research has been featured in Fortune Magazine, a podcast with Mashable, and republished in the London School of Economics’ USA Politics and Policy.

“[Propaganda sites] have created a web that is bleeding through on to our web,” Albright told The Guardian. “This isn’t a conspiracy. There isn’t one person who’s created this. It’s a vast system of hundreds of different sites that are using all the same tricks that all websites use. They’re sending out thousands of links to other sites and together this has created a vast satellite system….that has completely surrounded the mainstream media system.”

Media analysis of the factors that helped drive Republican Donald Trump to victory in the recent presidential election has highlighted the role that online “fake news” items may have played in influencing the decisions voters made when the entered the voting booth. Albright wanted to look beyond the role of social media to find out how these items were distributed and gained large readerships outside of channels like Twitter and Facebook. 

A graphic mapping the rightwing fake news ecosystem created by Jonathan Albright for an article in The Guardian. 
“I was really frustrated,” Albright said. “There were no answers to anything. I really felt like I was not seeing any real productive debate about it.”

Albright tackled the issue by writing an article he published on Medium that explored the role of “military grade” data mining during the presidential election by Trump’s political organization to better understand the mindset of voters and potential supporters. What he determined was that “sweeping up the data trails that can easily predict individual voter behavior on a national level is a game-winning strategy.”

The article would be the first of five Albright would publish between Nov. 11 and Nov. 26 as he explored the issue further. That included using publicly available data collection tools to “scrape” article URLs from a pool of more than 300 sites containing fake news content to see how they linked to one another, and determine which sites were the most connected throughout the “ecosystem.” Albright used additional privacy-related data tools to determine what types of tracking software these sites were deploying to track the activities of their audiences to get a sense of how much data was being mined from readers. 

“I’ve spent many hours on this series of #fakenews posts, and have tried to openly share my sources, lists, and research approach for a reason: so that this work might contribute to evidence through a straightforward and transparent data analysis to what seems to me is a widening controversy,” Albright wrote in his Nov. 26 article.

And journalists have been paying attention. Albright’s series on Medium, which continues to grow with new articles added just recently, attracted the attention of Cadwalladr and other journalists who want to better understand Albright’s research and use his methods to better dig into the fake news ecosystem themselves.

Albright said he’s working with journalists at national media outlets to take his mapping and exploration of this ecosystem further, and continues to get media requests for his network-focused insights on how fake news is spreading through the Internet. Jonathan is adapting his series of posts into an article that will appear in an upcoming leading technology publication.

“There’s deep concern about how to deal with this from news organizations,” Albright said.