Thousands of Twitter accounts that spread fake news during the 2016 election are still active today, say researchers

Fake news and misinformation was a key tactic used by the Russians during the 2016 presidential election to try to sway voters against candidates and sow mistruths and mistrust.

Now, with just weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, researchers say things are almost as bad.

Research out Thursday by the Knight Foundation found that more than 80 percent of the Twitter accounts that repeatedly spread false information during the 2016 election “are still active,” and are in some cases pushing more than a million tweets a day.

The foundation examined more than 10 million tweets from 700,000 accounts that were found linking to over 600 sites associated with misinformation and conspiracy theories. The researchers found 6.6 million of those tweets linked directly to fake news during the month before the 2016 election, and another four million tweets spreading fake news six months after the election.

Although that’s a decline, it’s still more fake news than anyone would want.

“Our democracy relies on access to news and information we can trust,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. “Right now, the discussion about misinformation online is based on anxiety and conventional wisdom.”

“That’s not good enough,” he said.

Twitter has spent the past year trying to clean up after the 2016 election, after which lawmakers attributed blame to the social media company for failing to do more to protect voters from misinformation. The company, with 330 million users, has stamped out tens of millions of accounts in the past year for spreading misinformation and other suspicious content.

But even chief executive Jack Dorsey admitted that Twitter has “not figured out” how to stamp out fake news on the site.

When reached, Del Harvey, Twitter’s global vice president of trust & safety, disputed the findings:

“Firstly, this study was built using our public API and therefore does not take into account any of the actions we take to remove automated or spammy content and accounts from being viewed by people on Twitter. We do this proactively and at scale, every single day. Secondly, as a uniquely open service, Twitter is a vital source of real-time antidote to day-to-day falsehoods. We are proud of this use case and work diligently to ensure we are showing people context and a diverse range of perspectives as they engage in civic debate and conversations on our service.”

The Knight Foundation criticized Twitter for claiming it cracked down on automated and “spammy” accounts, and said that “so many easily identified abusive accounts is difficult to square with any effective crackdown.”

According to their findings, the researchers said that the accounts were densely interlinked by following each other, described as a “disinformation supercluster.” The accounts participate in “coordinated campaigns to push fake news” by tweeting links to only a handful of fake news sites.

“The core of this network remains highly active as this report goes to press,” said the researchers. “Both before and after the election, most Twitter links to fake news are concentrated on a few dozen sites, and those top fake and conspiracy sites are largely stable.”

“Reducing the social media audience of just the dozen most linked fake and conspiracy sites could dramatically reduce fake news on Twitter,” they concluded.