Conversations surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election often involve references to “fake news,” Russian interference, data breaches, and the impact of various social media platforms on the divisive outcome. A new book from researchers at the Berkman Klein Center (BKC) that has its origins in a three-year study of the media ecosystem surrounding the election disrupts this narrative.
“Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics,” by Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and faculty co-director of BKC; Robert Faris, the research director at the center; and Hal Roberts, a fellow there, provides a comprehensive study of the media ecosystem surrounding the race.
“The idea of this book was to wrestle — really starting just after the election, even though the work started far before that — with what just happened? What the heck just happened in our country, to our media system, to our democracy?” Roberts said at a book talk on Oct. 4. The talk was moderated by Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard.
A major contribution of the book is what the researchers call an “asymmetric polarization” model that stems from their research on partisan media ecosystems. The model, created with data from the media sources most cited during and after the election period, shows that left-wing media outlets are more closely aligned with centrist media outlets, and right-wing media sources are much more skewed and “are operating in their own media world,” Roberts said. The researchers found that this pattern was evident during the election and was even more pronounced during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
Asymmetric polarization was consistent across different platforms; it was found in analyses based on cross-media linking and in media sharing patterns on Twitter and Facebook.