Study: Major media outlets' Twitter accounts amplify false Trump claims on average 19 times a day
Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ & ROB SAVILLO
Major media outlets failed to rebut President Donald Trump's misinformation 65% of the time in their tweets about his false or misleading comments, according to a Media Matters review. That means the outlets amplified Trump's misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study -- a rate of 19 per day.
The data shows that news outlets are still failing to grapple with a major problem that media critics highlighted during the Trump transition: When journalists apply their traditional method of crafting headlines, tweets, and other social media posts to Trump, they end up passively spreading misinformation by uncritically repeating his falsehoods.
The way people consume information in the digital age makes the accuracy of a news outlet’s headlines and social media posts more important than ever, because research shows they are the only thing a majority of people actually read. But journalists are trained to treat a politician’s statements as intrinsically newsworthy, often quoting them without context in tweets and headlines and addressing whether the statement was accurate only in the body of the piece, if at all. When the politician’s statements are false, journalists who quote them in headlines and on social media without context end up amplifying the falsehoods.
Anecdotally, it’s been clear for some time that journalists have not adjusted their practices for the Trump era in which, according to The Washington Post, the president has already made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims. In recent months, Media Matters has explored how news outlets have passively misinformed the public by passing along misinformation from Trump administration figures on topics like threats of violence against journalists, special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, potential conflict with North Korea, Special Olympics funding, and whether the Obama administration was “spying” on Trump associates.
But in order to assess the scope of the problem, Media Matters reviewed the more than 2,000 tweets that 32 Twitter feeds controlled by major news outlets sent about Trump comments from January 26, when legislation took effect that ended a lengthy federal shutdown and temporarily funded the government, through February 15, when Trump agreed to a longer extension of federal funding and declared a national emergency on the border.
We coded all the tweets that referenced a Trump comment for whether it was false or misleading according to The Washington Post’s database, and if so, for whether the tweet had disputed the false or misleading claim. (Read the full methodology here.)
It's important to keep in mind the narrowness of our scope: We reviewed how media outlets treated false claims only from the president, not from members of his administration who mimic his disregard for the truth. But even then, the results were striking, demonstrating that media outlets have a serious, ongoing problem dealing with passive misinformation.
30% of the tweets by major media outlets’ Twitter accounts about Trump remarks referenced a false or misleading statement.
Nearly two-thirds of the time, the outlets did not dispute that misinformation.
That means the outlets amplified false or misleading Trump claims without disputing them 407 times over the three weeks of the study, an average of 19 times a day.
The extent to which outlets’ Twitter feeds passively spread Trump’s misinformation depended on the platform in which Trump made his comments. For example:
92% of false or misleading Trump claims went undisputed when he was speaking at a press gaggle or pool spray.
49% of false or misleading Trump claims went undisputed when outlets were responding to comments he made during formal speeches.
@TheHill was the worst actor and sent more than 40% of the tweets that pushed Trump’s misinformation without disputing it during our entire study.
Passive misinformation is a problem for outlets across the board
Trump makes false claims frequently, and the media outlet Twitter feeds we studied frequently repeat his lies.
Media outlets put a great deal of focus on Trump’s comments -- roughly one out of every five tweets mentioning Trump was about a particular quote. We found that that content strategy leaves outlets vulnerable to passing on the president’s misinformation, as 30% of those Trump quotes contained a false or misleading claim.
News outlets can report on Trump’s falsehoods without misleading their audience if they take the time to fact-check his statements within the body of their tweets. But we found that that isn’t happening consistently -- in nearly two-thirds of tweets referencing false or misleading Trump claims, the media outlets did not dispute Trump’s misinformation.
All told, the Twitter feeds we studied promoted false or misleading Trump claims without disputing them in 407 tweets over a three-week period -- an average of 19 undisputed false claims published each day.
When a tweet about a false or misleading Trump comment included a link -- which often indicates that the tweet’s text is the headline of the article found at that link -- the outlet failed to dispute the misinformation 56% of the time. We found a total of 258 such tweets.
Media outlets performed even more poorly when they sent tweets about Trump claims that featured embedded video, a format often used to report on comments the president has just made. Outlets tweeting embedded video did not dispute false or misleading Trump comments 94% of the time. We found a total of 143 such tweets.
Outlets passively spread Trump’s misinformation regardless of his platform
Trump spews misinformation whenever he speaks or tweets. However, we found that media outlets responded to his misinformation differently depending on the venue where the president made his comments.
The Twitter feeds we followed performed the worst when Trump was speaking at a press gaggle or pool spray, passing along his false or misleading claims without disputing them 92% of the time -- a total of 61 tweets.
Seventy-three percent of tweets featuring a false or misleading claim Trump made during an interview did not dispute the misinformation. There were a total of 38 such tweets over the course of the study.
Two-thirds of tweets featuring a false or misleading claim Trump made during a press conference did not dispute the misinformation. This sample was very small, with only six such tweets.
Just over three-quarters of tweets featuring a false or misleading claim Trump tweeted did not dispute the misinformation. We found 166 tweets that fit that category.
We found that outlets performed “best” when they were responding to claims Trump made during speeches. In those circumstances, only 49% of false or misleading Trump claims went undisputed, a total of 136 tweets.
The State of the Union exception
The data for Trump claims during speeches is likely skewed by the media’s performance during the State of the Union.
In our March review of the tweets media outlets sent in the 24 hours following that event, we wrote that the State of the Union likely represented a high point for the news media’s performance in responding to Trump falsehoods in real time because the night’s prominence led news outlets to devote substantial resources to fact-checking that speech.
That hypothesis was supported by the results of our broader study. In the 24 hours after the speech began, outlets disputed 53% of false Trump claims that they tweeted about, compared to only 27% during the remainder of the study. Notably, February 5, the date of the speech, and the day before, when outlets were preparing for the speech, were the only two days over the course of the study when the number of tweets disputing Trump’s misinformation exceeded tweets failing to dispute his claims.
In particular, some of the outlets we praised for using extensive graphics to point out misleading elements during their coverage of Trump's State of the Union speech did substantially worse in responding to his misinformation over the remainder of the study. The New York Times’ main Twitter feed and politics feed disputed every misleading Trump comment they tweeted about during the 24 hours following the State of the Union, but they did so only 38% of the time over the rest of the period. Similarly, Politico’s feed disputed more than four out of five misleading Trump claims during our March State of the Union study but did so only 8% of the time before and afterward.
The news outlets that spread the most passive misinformation
The outlets we studied vary in how often they report on the president’s comments, how often they highlight Trump statements that are false, and how diligent they are in fact-checking those remarks. All of these factors affect how frequently they provide passive misinformation to their audiences on Twitter.
The Twitter feed of The Hill, which has 3.25 million followers, was by far the worst offender we reviewed, producing more than 40 percent of the tweets that pushed Trump’s misinformation without context over the entire study. It promoted Trump’s falsehoods without disputing them 175 times -- an average of more than eight per day. These numbers are so high in part because the outlet tweets about Trump far more frequently than other outlets, generating about a quarter of the total data. That high volume led to the outlet tweeting about false or misleading Trump claims 200 times. The feed rarely disputes the Trump claims it tweets about, instead simply passing along the misinformation 88% of the time. The Hill also frequently resends the same tweet at regular intervals, not only amplifying his falsehoods, but also making it more likely that the misinformation will stick with its audience through the power of repetition.
"The wall is very, very on its way. It's happening as we speak. We're building as we speak."
— The Hill (@thehill) February 13, 2019
Several Twitter feeds controlled by ABC News that we reviewed also stood out, failing to fact-check the president’s misinformation 71% of the time. Many of these cases came when the feeds tweeted Trump quotes and embedded video without additional context during or immediately following Trump events.
ABC News’ main Twitter feed (14.3 million followers) sent 23 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation 74% of the time.
The network’s politics feed (733,000 followers) sent 25 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation 64% of the time.
The feed for its evening news broadcast, World News Tonight (1.35 million followers), sent 13 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation every single time.
The feed for its Sunday political talk show, This Week (166,000 followers), sent 21 tweets promoting false or misleading Trump claims, failing to dispute the president’s misinformation 64% of the time
CBS News’ Twitter feeds also performed poorly, passing along the president’s falsehoods without disputing them 87% of the time. The network’s general feed (6.71 million followers) and the ones for its nightly news broadcast, CBS Evening News (304,000 followers), and Sunday political talk show, Face The Nation (473,000 followers), passed along Trump’s misinformation in 11, 13, and 16 tweets, respectively, failing to correct it 92%, 72%, and 100% of the time. Notably, the feeds for Face The Nation and CBS Evening News each quoted Trump in their tweets about him more than 41% of the time -- the highest rates of any feeds in our study. Considered together, that data means those two feeds are not only largely failing to assess whether the president's statements are accurate, but also using Trump's misinformation as their lens to cover his administration more than other outlets.
Other media Twitter feeds we reviewed that sent 10 or more tweets passing on false or misleading Trump comments include MSNBC’s main feed (2.41 million followers, 11 such tweets, failing to dispute 55% of the time); NBC News’ main feed (6.52 million followers, 13 such tweets, failing to dispute 52% of the time); Politico (3.8 million followers, 14 such tweets, failing to dispute 58% of the time); and Roll Call (359,000 followers, 10 such tweets, failing to dispute 83% of the time).
Some feeds entirely avoided passing on Trump’s misinformation over the course of the study. NPR’s main feed, which tweeted only 20 times about Trump quotes, debunked the misinformation in all four false claims it tweeted about.
Other Twitter feeds limited the exposure their audience had to Trump’s misinformation by minimizing their focus on Trump’s comments. For example, the feed for Meet The Press, the NBC News Sunday political talk show, failed to dispute Trump’s falsehoods 83% of the time. But it rarely tweeted about Trump comments, with such tweets making up only 9% of the outlet’s total tweets about Trump. CNN’s main Twitter feed similarly referenced Trump quotes in only 11% of the tweets about him, while doing somewhat better at fact-checking Trump, disputing his false claims 75% of the time.
The Washington Post’s feed disputed Trump’s misinformation at the highest rate of any feed we studied that tweeted about 10 or more false Trump claims. Out of 37 tweets about false or misleading Trump claims, the outlet disputed the misinformation 33 times and failed four times, a success rate of 89%.
Media Matters reviewed more than 54,000 tweets sent between 12 a.m. EST on January 26 and 12 a.m. EST on February 16 from the following Twitter feeds of U.S. wire services; major broadcast, cable, and radio networks; national newspapers; and Capitol Hill newspapers and digital outlets that cover Congress and the White House: @AP, @AP_Politics, @Reuters, @ReutersPolitics, @ABC, @ABCPolitics, @ABCWorldNews, @ThisWeekABC, @CBSEveningNews, @CBSNews, @FaceTheNation, @NBCNews, @NBCNightlyNews, @NBCPolitics, @CNN, @CNNPolitics, @FoxNews*, @BreakingNews, @MSNBC, @NPR, @nprpolitics, @nytpolitics, @nytimes @politico, @postpolitics, @washingtonpost, @WSJ, @USAToday, @latimes, @axios, @thehill, and @rollcall.
We chose that time frame both because it involved a period of high-stakes political turmoil in which the information the public received was especially crucial, and because the president made public remarks at that time in a variety of ways, including the State of the Union, other speeches, press gaggles and pool sprays, interviews, a press conference, and innumerable tweets.
Media Matters narrowed the universe down to the roughly 11,000 of those tweets that mentioned "Trump," and identified of that group more than 2,000 tweets that referenced a comment Trump had made. We then coded those tweets for whether they referenced a remark that’s included in The Washington Post Fact Checker’s database of false or misleading Trump claims. In such cases, we reviewed whether the outlets’ tweets had disputed the Trump claim. We reviewed the text and images embedded in the tweets, but did not review embedded videos.
*@FoxNews did not tweet during the period of the study.