Republican candidates are spreading more fake news than two years ago

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In recent years, there has been a huge increase in media coverage of misinformation and conspiracy theories in politics.

Former President Donald Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen, and his January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally led some supporters to attack the US Capitol. Members of Congress, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), have repeatedly shared misinformation about covid-19 and embraced QAnon conspiracy theories. And more than 100 Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections continue to promote Trump’s voter fraud allegations.

The media regularly reported these lies, giving the impression that misinformation is rampant in politics. But are congressional candidates actually sharing more misinformation in 2022 than in 2020?

Yes, according to our analysis of Facebook posts by congressional candidates. We found that politicians in the 2022 election are sharing more links to unreliable news sources than they did in 2020, and the increase appears to be driven by non-incumbent Republican candidates.

Conspiracy theories are spreading more than ever. Why now?

Measuring disinformation on social networks is complicated. With billions of posts per day on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it would be impossible to scrutinize each one for misinformation. Instead, to roughly gauge the level of misinformation shared by political candidates, we relied on NewsGuard, a nonpartisan organization that provides trust ratings for online news sources.

NewsGuard uses several point-based criteria to assess a site’s credibility and transparency, assigning each site a score from 0 to 100 based on how well they adhere to these standards. NewsGuard considers sites rated 60+, which include sources such as The Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN, to be reliable news sites. He considers those under 60, including Breitbart and Daily Kos, to be unreliable.

We then looked at NewsGuard’s scores for news sources shared by Democratic and Republican candidates in the primary and general elections for Congress in 2020 and 2022.

From January to July 2020, when Republican candidates for Congress shared links to news sources, 8% came from sites deemed untrustworthy, on average each day. For Democratic candidates, the daily average was less than 1%.

Two years later, Republican candidates relied much more on unreliable sources of information. From January to July 2022, on average each day, 36% of news shared by Republican candidates came from unreliable sites, while this was true of only 2% of news shared by Democratic candidates each day.

Non-incumbent Republicans shared the least reliable news

What happened? When we look closer, we see that non-incumbent Republicans, or Republican candidates running to be nominated for open seats or running against Republican incumbents, are the ones driving the increase in sources unreliable, not Republican incumbents in Congress. Overall in 2022, Republican incumbents shared news where a daily average of 6% was linked to unreliable sources. Meanwhile, Republican challengers shared information from unreliable sources 45% of the time, on average daily.

Sarah Palin shares the least reliable news

But there is one outlier rejecting the 2022 data: Sarah Palin, who is running as a Republican for Alaska’s only seat in the House. As of July 12, 2022, it had shared 849 links to untrusted sources, out of a total of 853, for more than 99% of its sources shared this year. Palin mostly shares blog posts from her own website, which NewsGuard considers unreliable. The next closest is Rob Cornicelli, a Republican running in New York, who shared 88 links to unreliable sources, or 65% of his total.

How would removing Palin’s unusually high percentages affect the overall averages? The results remain similar although they are less striking. Without it, from January to July 2022, Republican congressional candidates shared information from unreliable sources 12% of the time. While that’s a significant drop from the 36% we found when we included Palin, it’s still a 50% increase from around 8% in 2020.

The difference between the incumbent and the other Republican candidates is also narrowing. Without including Palin’s averages, non-incumbent Republicans share about 14% of their news from unreliable sources, compared to about 6% for incumbent Republicans.

Notably, NewsGuard changed its rating to classify Fox and MSNBC as unreliable sources. This was not true for the period we analyzed. But when we redo our analysis with Fox and MSNBC deemed unreliable, the changes are slight: Republicans share less reliable information than Democrats, but the differences between incumbent and non-incumbent Republicans narrow.

The hearings show a democracy in crisis. Civic education can help.

This happens on other social media platforms

Other research also suggests similar trends on other platforms. Since 2016, Republican members of Congress have increasingly been sharing links to unreliable sources on Twitter, and especially since the election of Joe Biden, according to political scientist Jana Lasser’s recent working paper, when nothing similar only happened with the Democrats.

This primary season, Republicans have nominated more than 80 congressional candidates who falsely say Trump won the 2020 election. Clearly, more candidates will be sharing links from unreliable news sources as we head towards the general elections in November. In a democratic society that gives politicians wide latitude in their speech, what does it mean that candidates are spreading more and more misinformation and lies?

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Maggie Macdonald (@MG_Macdonald) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University.

Megan A. Brown (@m_dot_brown) is a research fellow at the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University.

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