The Business of Misinformation
A CMDS project mapping the individuals and companies that own misinformation websites and their links to institutions, parties and other individuals.
Bogus websites have inundated Europe in the past few years. They operate and expand in a myriad of forms and formats. Literature about the growing fake news phenomenon abounds. Academic studies about the impact of misinformation are generated at a good clip. The influence of Russia in the 2016 American elections through fast-spreading fake news still makes the headlines. In 2018, European Commission, EU’s executive arm, created a high level group to look into the issue and advise the commission on how to combat misinformation. Nothing is fancier these days among universities and donors than to set up truth or trust commissions to battle misinformation.
It is hard to remember a media studies topic that has ever attracted so much time and money.
Lately, however, more hard-headed experts are warning about the exaggeration behind the fake news hubbub. Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, wrote in a recent study that fears about the spread and influence of fake news “have been over-hyped.” The scope of the problem and its effect on American politics, he says, were exaggerated or just plain wrong.
It is time to pragmatically look into this niche of our news and information system to properly understand the scope of the problem (if there is one). As a contribution to these efforts, CMDS’ Business of Misinformation project aims at mapping the companies and individuals owning, controlling or running fake news websites. Such a map, presenting the ownership, sources of funding and links with other entities, will help understand the scope of the problem and the actual power fueling misinformation online.
Methodology and definitions
Building on the vast literature aimed at defining “fake news”, particularly the work done by First Draft, the Business of Misinformation project canvasses websites that systematically and methodically create and target false information to persuade audiences to adopt ideas and ways of thinking embraced by their original promoters or their sponsors, be those political, social, economic, health-related or else.
We do not include in our sample mainstream media, either government- or commercially owned, that inadvertently or purposely spread propaganda. We recognize that the power of those media outlets is a major part of the declining trust in media and journalism, which we examine through our larger media system-focused research work, particularly CMDS’ Media Influence Matrix. The Business of Misinformation includes players in the misinformation industry consisting of locally run online portals that are presenting themselves and are perceived as independence voices.
The methodology for this project consists of the following steps:
1). Collection of data on misinformation websites
Desk research based on data collected through local industry associations, direct observation and third-party sources (studies or articles)
The following three categories of websites are included:
- Websites which produce what seem to be original media reports that consist of inaccurate facts and information with the purpose of intentionally misinforming the public and spreading falsehoods
- Websites which publish someone else’s original reports that consist of inaccurate facts, information, and falsehoods
- Websites which spread conspiracy theories by disseminating untruthful or unverifiable information and presenting them as facts which are connected via a causal relationship without providing any concrete evidence to support that claim
Based on direct observation and content analysis, we will provide brief descriptions of the websites and 3-5 examples of misinformation content.
2). Collection of ownership and financial data
Using desk research, we collect data mainly from public trade registries and corporate accounts as well as investigative journalism websites such as Investigative Dashboard and Open Corporates to create profiles of owners, including basic financial data.
3). Organizing the information into database
Based on the information collected through these sources and available network analysis projects as well as on-the-ground investigations conducted by journalists, we are creating a database of misinformation traders that we will present online and update regularly. The database is also planned to feature links with other entities, including parties, churches, institutions or individuals, based either on commonly held IP addresses, Google AdSense account numbers, physical incorporation addresses or commonly held assets. The database will be the base for analysis and articles, which, by featuring links between all these various entities, internally or cross-border, is expected to offer a better understanding of the scope of the problem.
- Bosnia & Herzegovina