A study analyzing millions of Tweets found that Republican members of the US Congress are spreading more and more information from dubious sources, compared to their European counterparts.
The research, conducted by the Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) in Austria and the University of Bristol in the UK, showed that Republican congressmen share more links to websites classified as “unworthy of confidence”.
It is widely recognized that what politicians share on social media helps shape public perceptions and opinions. The results are particularly relevant, with the US midterm elections in November and much of the campaigning taking place on social media platforms.
First author Dr Jana Lasser, a complexity researcher at the Technical University of Graz, said: “The amount of unreliable information shared by politicians on social media is perceived to be increasing. We wanted to back this up with numbers, so we analyzed millions of original tweets from politicians in the US, Britain and Germany.
The research team collected more than 3.4 million tweets from politicians between 2016 and 2022. Specifically, these were 1.7 million tweets from members of the US Congress, 960,000 tweets from British MPs and 750,000 tweets from German MPs. The links in the tweets were checked against a company database NewsGuardwhich assesses the credibility and transparency of news websites against nine journalistic criteria and identifies relevant details about website ownership, funding, credibility and transparency practices.
The results showed that members of the Republican Party, in particular, shared significantly more links to websites classified as “untrusted” over the years. Compared to 2016 to 2018, the number of links to untrustworthy websites has doubled over the past two years.
Dr Lasser said: “In general, members of parties on the right half of the political spectrum in all countries studied share more of these ties – but only Republicans show this significant increase. In the other countries, the share remained stable.
Specifically, the percentage of links to untrustworthy websites posted by Republicans more than doubled between 2016 to 2018 and 2020 to 2022, from 2.4% to 5.5%.
Overall, Republican members of Congress post about nine times as many such links as Democratic members of Congress, where only 0.4% of links in tweets point to untrustworthy sites.
In Europe, parliamentarians are even less likely to connect to untrustworthy sites. Even among the Conservatives, only 0.25% of links shared by UK Conservative politicians and 0.18% of links shared by Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union MPs of Bavaria (CSU), a centre-right Christian party-democratic alliance, were not to be trusted. The only European party whose selection of sources for Twitter posts resembled that of Republican MPs was the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist political party.
“Repeating the analysis with a second comparable database also produced very similar results. In such analyses, it is important to use different assessments of the credibility of information sources in order to exclude bias or partiality,” added Dr. Lasser.
Corresponding author Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, said: “Politicians are part of the educated elite; their behavior is a sort of compass of what is socially acceptable and what is not. When people in politics increasingly publish false information or news from sources that are not very reliable, I think it is very problematic.
“Despite their high social status, it is therefore important to critically take the information shared by politicians and question the sources.”
“Sharing on social networks of poor quality information sources by political elites” by Jana Lasser, Segun Taofeek Aroyehun, Almog Simchon, Fabio Carrella, David Garcia, Stephan Lewandowsky in Nexus PNAS