The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump backers’ alarming reliance on hoax and conspiracy theory websites, in 1 chart

Alex Jones was a powerful underground voice for the alternative conservative media, but he became a more mainstream figure in December 2015. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Manuel Roig-Franzia/The Washington Post)

We increasingly live in two Americas. And those two Americas have very separate sources of news.

But the 2016 campaign wasn't just about media polarization and President Trump bashing the mainstream press; it was also about dubious information. A new study provides a troubling look at how much websites that peddle fake news and conspiracy theories infected Trump's base of support.

The extensive study, from Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, tracked down the most linked-to news sources on Twitter for supporters of both Trump and Hillary Clinton. The study collected 4.5 million tweets and searched for users who retweeted either Trump or Clinton. From there, it analyzed the URLs that these users shared on their feeds.

Fourth on the list of most-shared sources among Trump supporters on Twitter was Gateway Pundit, a site especially notorious for trafficking in hoaxes and falsehoods. No. 13 on the list was InfoWars, Alex Jones's conspiracy theory website, which is infamous for suggesting the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, among many other things.

Also ranking in the top 15 were two other highly suspect sources of news, the Conservative Treehouse and Truthfeed. (For examples of what these sites purvey, click here and here.)

The study's authors put it this way:

While we observe highly partisan and clickbait news sites on both sides of the partisan divide, especially on Facebook, on the right these sites received amplification and legitimation through an attention backbone that tied the most extreme conspiracy sites like Truthfeed, Infowars, through the likes of Gateway Pundit and Conservative Treehouse, to bridging sites like the Daily Caller and Breitbart that legitimated and normalized the paranoid style that came to typify the right-wing ecosystem in the 2016 election. This attention backbone relied heavily on social media.

Just as notable are the conservative outlets that don't rank as highly as these dubious sources. While the Daily Caller and Breitbart ranked in the top 10 and Fox News was No. 3 (just above Gateway Pundit!), the New York Post was No. 16, the Wall Street Journal (whose editorial board leans conservative) was No. 23, and the Washington Times and the Washington Free Beacon round out the top 25 at Nos. 24 and 25, respectively.

For contrast, here's what Clinton's top 50 look like:

As the color-coding shows, both candidates' supporters relied on media outlets that conformed to their politics, which shouldn't be a big surprise. There is limited overlap on the two lists, with the exceptions being major national news outlets that tend to be more neutral and pump out lots of content.

But while Clinton's list includes some very liberal outlets, few of them are on par with the kind of misinformation coming out of Gateway Pundit or InfoWars. About the most comparable example on Clinton's list is No. 14, the Daily News Bin, a now-defunct site created by the same founder as the Palmer Report, both of which have been known to make wild and unsubstantiated claims, including linking House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.)and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the Russia scandal.

As a candidate and president, Trump has set about raising the profile of these conspiracy theory websites, even granting an interview to Jones during the 2016 race. Now we have a sense for how much they've infected the conservative bloodstream.

This post has been updated.