What’s Trending? (Part 1): Race and COVID-19 have been among the hottest topics on social media, but it also depends on who’s talking about it

November 16, 2020

Written by UMICH Center for Social Media Responsibility

At the University of Michigan Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR), we publish and monitor a metric we call the Iffy Quotient—the fraction of the most popular URLs on Facebook and Twitter that come from “Iffy” sites that often publish misinformation. NewsWhip determines the most popular URLs each day, while NewsGuard provides us with website ratings, with Media Bias/Fact Check providing ratings for sites unrated by NewsGuard.

Amidst the pandemic, one might expect that the most popular news URLs from Iffy websites shared on Facebook and Twitter would frequently be about COVID-19. Upon closer inspection, though, this isn’t exactly the case.

In our previous post, we highlighted a (temporary) “flight to quality” in the news content that people engaged with on Facebook and Twitter in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S. Specifically, we noticed that the Iffy Quotient indicated a decrease in the most popular URLs that were coming from Iffy sites, while our Mainstream Quotient—a metric that is analogous to, but separate from, the Iffy Quotient—indicated an increase in the most popular URLs that were coming from a specific list of 30 mainstream news sites. (Please see our previous post for a fuller explanation as well as the complete list of sources.)

We were encouraged by the initial flight to quality observed in the flow of popular URLs on Facebook and Twitter, but of course the spread of Iffy content, such as misinformation, continues to occur on both social media platforms. As the pandemic wore on into the summer, and as it became increasingly politicized in some arenas, we wanted to know if it was the main topic of popular content from Iffy sites. We were surprised to find that not only was it not the main topic of such content, it represented a relatively smaller fraction of popular Iffy content compared to other timely topics.

Diving into the details

The Iffy Quotient is principally designed to express the flow of Iffy content, but it also tells us about the flow of more acceptable content, which comes from sites classified by NewsGuard or Media Bias/Fact Check as “OK,” as opposed to “Iffy.” OK sites may include, but are not limited to, mainstream news sources. What this means is that the Iffy Quotient tells us the percentage of a day’s most popular URLs that comes from Iffy sites and the percentage that comes from OK sites (and from unrated sites, of course).

Using the Iffy Quotient’s daily details pages (one example from June 11, 2020), we analyzed a sample of the most popular URLs on both Facebook and Twitter from Iffy sites and OK sites from May 1 – July 16, 2020. We found that over that time a little more than 11% of Iffy URLs were related to COVID-19, while, for instance, almost 33% were stories about racism, protests, riots, and the like in the U.S., and roughly 14% covered the U.S. presidential election. In other words, of the most popular Iffy site URLs shared on Facebook and Twitter, almost three times as many appeared to be about race-related issues than were about COVID-19, and U.S. presidential election-themed URLs were also more popular than the COVID-19 ones. The ~33% dedicated to race-related issues not only was nearly a third of all stories but also represented the largest percentage by topic, and the three major topics combined accounted for almost 59% of the popular stories.

Over that same period, however, about 37% of popular URLs from OK sites were related to COVID-19, roughly 29% were about U.S. race-related issues, and about 10% were U.S. presidential election-themed. Here the percentage of COVID-19 stories is the single largest percentage by topic and also over a third of all stories. This is in stark contrast to the ~11% of Iffy site URLs on the same topic. On OK sites, the three main topics made up ~76% of the popular stories.

Chart showing the main topics by percentage of popular urls from OK and Iffy sites

Our analysis indicates that as the summer months arrived, three particular topics were (probably unsurprisingly) frequent subjects of popular news items from both OK and Iffy websites, when measured by their popularity on Facebook and Twitter: the COVID-19 pandemic; racism, protests, riots, etc., in the U.S.; and the U.S. presidential election. Iffy sites experienced the most success among social media users with their race-related stories, while the OK sites’ coverage of COVID-19 was their most popular, though their own race-related stories also garnered considerable attention. Iffy sites’ COVID-19 stories were far less frequently popular.

Furthermore, content on these big three topics made up an even larger portion of the OK sites’ popular news (~76%) than that of Iffy sites (~59%), which raises the question: what else was being discussed in the rest of the popular news items, especially ones from Iffy sites? In our next post, we’ll examine the other popular content and highlight a telling disparity we found between Iffy and OK sites.

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