Understanding how people consume low quality and extreme news using web traffic data

Zhouhan Chen, Haohan Chen, Juliana Freire, Jonathan Nagler, Joshua A. Tucker

To mitigate the spread of fake news, researchers need to understand who visit fake new sites, what brings people to those sites, where visitors come from, and what content they prefer to consume. In this paper, we analyze web traffic data from The Gateway Pundit (TGP), a popular far-right website that is known for repeatedly sharing false information that has made its web traffic available to the general public. We collect data on 68 million web traffic visits to the site over a month period and analyze how people consume news via multiple features. Our traffic analysis shows that search engines and social media platforms are main drivers of traffic; our geo-location analysis reveals that TGP is more popular in counties that voted for Trump in 2020; and our topic analysis shows that conspiratorial articles receive more visits than factual articles. Due to the inability to observe direct website traffic, existing research uses alternative data source such as engagement signals from social media posts. To validate if social media engagement signals correlate with actual web visit counts, we collect all Facebook and Twitter posts with URLs from TGP during the same time period. We show that all engagement signals positively correlate with web visit counts, but with varying correlation strengths. Metrics based on Facebook posts correlate better than metrics based on Twitter. Our unique web traffic data set and insights can help researchers to better measure the impact of far-right and fake news URLs on social media platforms.

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