Fake news sites have struggled to take hold in the UK political sphere, seemingly because traditional British news outlets are already incredibly adept at filling the market with highly partisan news stories that stretch the truth to its limits.
BuzzFeed News analysed the hundred most shared news stories on social media for a variety of topics relating to British politics over the last 12 months, taking in major events such as the EU referendum, the appointment of Theresa May as prime minister, and Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader.
In countries such as the US and Italy, completely fake stories with no basis in fact have come to dominate political debate on social networks such as Facebook. Such material – with headlines such as the infamous “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” – is usually produced for political or financial purposes by websites that have little pre-existing online footprint.
BuzzFeed News has revealed how Macedonian teenagers could make tens of thousands of dollars fabricating stories about Donald Trump, how fake news is spreading to Germany and Italy, and how fake news stories outperformed real news outlets during the US election.
But equivalent analysis of UK social media habits reveals the most popular dubious stories on British politics were almost always the work of long-established news outlets and relied at most on exaggeration rather than fakery. The evidence suggests that rather than reading complete lies, British audiences appear to prefer stories that contain at least a kernel of truth, even if the facts are polluted or distorted.
“We have always had a partisan press that people enjoy and have become acclimatised to,” said Charlie Beckett, professor of journalism at the London School of Economics. “Hyperpartisan news has always been part of our audience’s culture – and we do it better in some ways than fake news.”
This has left a limited gap for fake news providers. Instead, traditional publishers have grown more reliant on Facebook shares for internet traffic and advertising income, ratcheting up the shock value of headlines to meet demand.
This also suggests that any regulatory attempt to crack down on “fake news” – currently under discussion by the UK government and the subject of discussion by media pundits – would in reality require making editorial judgments against substantial British media outlets rather than simply shutting down opportunistic fly-by-night fake news sites.
Analysis of the hundred most popular pieces of Brexit content using the social-media monitoring tool BuzzSumo found the single most shared referendum-related news story – as opposed to comment piece or clearly labelled satire – was a brief 377-word article published by the Daily Express on 3 May.
Headlined “Major leak from Brussels reveals NHS will be ‘KILLED OFF’ if Britain remains in the EU” and based on leaked documents provided by Greenpeace, the piece asserted that ongoing EU–US trade deal talks would result in “the health service being privatised or dismantled” if Britain remained in the European Union.
Despite going largely unnoticed in the rest of the media it is likely to have been one of the most-read pieces of journalism written during the entire EU referendum campaign.
The headline, which left little room for nuance, was strongly disputed by EU representatives, who insisted the NHS would be protected under any trade deal. But the attention-grabbing take helped the piece attract 464,000 shares, comments, and interactions on Facebook.
Although such interactions are an imperfect way of measuring overall internet traffic and readership levels, it is likely that the headline was seen by millions of people in the run-up to the EU vote, helped by Facebook shares from the far-right British National Party and popular groups with names such as “I Wear My Poppy With Pride”.
There was little outright fake news among the most-shared Brexit stories, although British readers were fans of overtly spoof headlines such as “Thousands Of British Refugees Make Dangerous Journey Across The Irish Sea”.
Fake news – in the purest sense of complete fabrication – was also noticeably absent when BuzzFeed News analysed the most-shared links for topics such as Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, and Article 50.
Out of the hundred most shared links relating to the new prime minister, there was only one overtly fake article which appears to have hoodwinked a large number of people: a piece published by the site Mook News entitled “Tony Blair Ready To Take Over From Theresa May”.
Instead the public tended to prefer stories from established UK news outlets that relied on exaggerating facts and taking quotes out of context. The most shared news story about the new prime minister appeared in the Sunday Express and was headlined “Theresa May says many Britons ‘BENEFIT GREATLY’ from Sharia Law”.
The piece, which attracted 90,000 interactions on social media, exaggerated comments made in a speech by May, who was launching an inquiry into the misuse of sharia law, in which she commented “many British people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices, and benefit a great deal from the guidance they offer”.
Other articles referencing May’s supposed support for sharia law featured in the list of most-shared content. But they almost always involved comments taken out of context rather than overt fakery.
A similar trend played out with topics relating to Jeremy Corbyn, with no overtly fake stories in the top hundred most-shared sites. In their place were disputed stories from traditional outlets – such as The Guardian’s “Corbyn joins seatless commuters on floor for three-hour train journey”, which was the fourth-most shared piece of content with 50,384 Facebook interactions but was later the subject of a critical investigation by the newspaper’s own readers’ editor.
Instead the sharing statistics for Corbyn-related material suggest that even though the British public doesn’t share fake news about the Labour leader, they have an insatiable demand for stories about how the mainstream media is allegedly lying to them about his chances of being elected prime minister such as “The media is ignoring the fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is pulling ahead in the polls”.
Hyperpartisan sites such as Breitbart News and The Canary were popular on Facebook but their most shared articles relating to UK politics – with headlines such as “This is the bombshell dropped by Theresa May’s government while the media whined on about Traingate” – tended to be guilty of exaggeration at most rather than outright fakery.
Instead, the public were more likely to read speculative pieces such as The Independent’s “Tony Blair ‘returning to politics’ because he thinks Jeremy Corbyn ‘is a nutter’ and Theresa May ‘is a lightweight’”. The piece is a second-hand rewrite of anonymous comments made to the Sunday Times, which were strongly disputed by Blair’s office.
The only surveyed UK politics topic where stories with substantially misleading headlines did attract a substantial volume of online shares were those relating to British Muslims. Even then, these tended to involve the mislabelling of real videos or exaggerated rewrites of stories that had already appeared in mainstream UK newspapers.
The analysis is limited and imperfect because it only covers material hosted on external sites and cannot be used to measure the popularity of hyperpartisan articles, images, and memes hosted directly on Facebook pages.
However, certain patterns emerge across every major UK political topic: The more slanted the headline, the more the story was shared online. But completely fake material tended to flounder.
Beckett, the LSE journalism professor, suggested that unlike the US and Germany, Britain simply does not have a history of newspapers pretending to be objective – which leaves them well suited to producing social media–friendly stories with emotive, partisan headlines.
“The Mail and The Guardian stretch reality to fit a frame, just as Breitbart does,” he said. “People do have views on stuff and they don’t want a scientific summary – if they do want that they’ll go to the BBC.”