Platforms, Ideology, and Demographics: Sources and Impact of Polarization on Propagation of Disinformation and False News

Harvard University


Through combining Facebook data with data from the Media Cloud platform, this study maps political communications in America in the first two years of the Trump presidency. From Facebook data comes patterns of attention to millions of news stories; Media Cloud provides hyperlinks to, tweets about, and text from these same news stories from January 1, 2017, to the 2018 midterm elections. Beyond the map of political communications, comparing these sources of data also lets us ask: Do patterns of asymmetric polarization on the open web and Twitter appear on Facebook as well? And, what explains attention to false news, Russian disinformation, extremist content, and resistance to fact-checking: Is it the political leanings of users? Other attributes, such as age or geographic region? The insularity of the user groups they occupy? Or is it the choice of media outlets? The answers will provide guidance on how we might try and address polarization and disinformation.

Research Team

Principal Investigator

Yochai Benkler

Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Yochai Benkler is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Since the 1990s he has played a role in characterizing the role of information commons and decentralized collaboration to innovation, information production, and freedom in the networked economy and society. His books include Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (Oxford University Press, 2018) and The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (Yale University Press, 2006), which won academic awards from the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, and the McGannon award for social and ethical relevance in communications. In 2012, he received a lifetime achievement award from Oxford University “in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the study and public understanding of the Internet and information goods.” His work is socially engaged, winning him the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award in 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award for 2007, and the Public Knowledge IP3 Award in 2006. Benkler has advised governments and international organizations on innovation policy and telecommunications, and serves on the boards or advisory boards of several nonprofits engaged in working toward an open society.


Edoardo M. Airoldi

Millard E. Gladfelter Professor of Statistics and Data Science, Temple University

  • Bio ▾

    Dr. Edoardo M. Airoldi is the Millard E. Gladfelter Professor of Statistics and Data Science at the Fox School of Business at Temple University. He also serves as director of the Fox School’s Data Science Center. Airoldi joins the Fox School from Harvard University, where he had served since 2009 as a full-time faculty member in the Department of Statistics. He founded and directed the Harvard Laboratory for Applied Statistics & Data Science, until 2017. Additionally, he held visiting positions at MIT and Yale University, and served as a research associate at Princeton University. A distinguished researcher, Airoldi has authored more than 140 publications and earned more than 12,000 citations. His work focuses on statistical theory and methods for designing and analyzing experiments on large networks and, more generally, modeling and inferential issues that arise in analyses that leverage network data. Airoldi earned his PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, where he also received his master of science degrees in statistics and statistical and computational learning. He earned a bachelor of science in mathematical statistics and economics from Italy’s Bocconi University.

Justin Clark

Web Developer and Data Analyst, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Justin Clark is a web developer who makes internet websites for the Berkman Klein Center, and he enjoys it quite a bit. Previously, Clark worked as a software testing intern for Herdict and as a web developer/general-tech-guy for a concert venue in central New Hampshire. In his free time, Clark enjoys learning things and not learning things on the internet, facilitating for Soliya, writing profiles of himself, hangin' with his ladyfriend, roaming the earth, using Oxford commas, and hiking.

Bruce Etling

Data Scientist, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Bruce Etling is a data scientist at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. He works primarily with the Media Cloud and media manipulation teams. His research is focused on methods for the study of online behavior and political speech, including social network analysis, network modeling, and automated text analysis. He previously served as the director of the Internet & Democracy Project at the Berkman Klein Center, where he coauthored a number of papers on the Russian internet and mapping of online political networks. Prior to Berkman, he was a foreign service officer with the US Agency for International Development and served in Afghanistan, Russia, Cambodia, and Washington, DC. Etling has a PhD from the University of Oxford (Oxford Internet Institute) and a master of arts in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Robert Faris

Research Director, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Robert Faris is the research director at the Berkman Klein Center, where he contributes and provides oversight to research at the center. His research includes the study of digital communication mechanisms by civil society organizations and social movements, and the emergence and impact of digitally mediated collective action, as well as the influence of networked digital technologies on democracy and governance and the evolving role of new media in political change. His current work includes applied research into the networked public sphere drawing on the Media Cloud platform, the monitoring and measurement of internet activity and content controls based on the Internet Monitor platform, and research into the phenomenon of harmful speech online. He is the author, along with Yochai Benkler and Hal Roberts, of Network Propaganda. Prior to joining the Berkman Klein Center in 2006, Faris worked in Latin America and Asia on issues related to economic development, public policy, and environmental management. Faris holds an MA and PhD in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a BA in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Jonas Kaiser

Affiliate, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Jonas Kaiser is an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and associate researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society. His research is located at the intersection of digital and political communication. Kaiser’s research interests are online extremism, public sphere theory, online misinformation, and digital methods. He is currently working on a book for Oxford University Press on how the far-right in Germany and the United States is (ab)using the internet's affordances. Kaiser earned his PhD (doctorate of philosophy) at Zeppelin University for his thesis about climate change skepticism in Germany. His work has been published in journals like International Journal of Communication, Communication and the Public, and Environmental Communication and has been featured in German as well as US news media. At Berkman, he is thinking about the role social media platforms play in creating a networked public sphere. He has, for example, written about the role YouTube's recommendation algorithms play in fostering filter bubbles, what topics (far-)right media outlets are covering during and before domestic elections, and how journalists and academics might overestimate Twitter's relevance for society.

Aaron Kaufman

PhD Candidate, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Aaron Kaufman is a PhD candidate in political methodology and American politics at Harvard University. His research interests leverage cutting-edge methods in computer science and causal inference to answer substantive questions about public opinion, voting patterns, and elite behavior. Additionally, he produces open-source tools to help survey researchers conduct more efficient and unbiased research. He is committed to research transparency and open science. In his dissertation, he builds, tests, and experimentally validates a computational model to estimate partisanship from free text. He extends this model to predict the relative biases of public opinion survey questions and show that voters respond predictably to texts with varying bias. Furthermore, he shows that survey firms have consistently trended toward writing more conservative questions over the past two decades.

Momin M. Malik

Data Science Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Momin M. Malik is a multidisciplinary researcher who brings statistical modeling to bear on critical, reflexive questions with and about large-scale digital trace data. He is broadly concerned with issues of algorithmic power and control, and of validity and rigor in computational social science. In addition to empirical work modeling social media and mobile phone sensor data, he works on how to understand statistics, machine learning, and data science from critical and constructivist perspectives, on ethical and policy implications of predictive modeling, and on understanding and communicating foundational problems in statistical models of social networks. He has an undergraduate degree in history of science from Harvard, a master's from the Oxford Internet Institute, and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.

Hal Roberts

Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

  • Bio ▾

    Hal Roberts is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He is a cofounder and the technical architect of the Media Cloud project. Media Cloud is an open platform that seeks to better understand the networked public sphere by providing tools and data for quantitative and qualitative studies of online media content. He is the coauthor of the book Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, which uses the Media Cloud platform to analyze the American media ecosystem during the 2016 election and the first year of the Trump presidency. He has published papers using Media Cloud on the intersections of online media, democracy, and public health in the Columbia Journalism Review, International Journal of Communications, Political Communications, Journal of Health Communications, and Health and Education.

Back to top