The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans are increasingly sharing misinformation, research finds

Republican candidates have dramatically increased how much they share from unreliable sources in just two years

Republican House candidate Sarah Palin next to former president Donald Trump at a rally in Alaska. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Over the last several years, there’s been a considerable increase in media coverage about misinformation and conspiracy theories in politics.

Former President Donald Trump falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen, and his Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally led some supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol. Members of Congress, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), have repeatedly shared covid-19 misinformation and embraced QAnon conspiracy theories. And more than 100 Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms continue to promote Trump’s election fraud claims.

The media has routinely reported on these falsehoods, making it seem like misinformation is rampant in politics. But are candidates for Congress actually sharing more misinformation in 2022 than 2020?

Yes, according to our analysis of congressional candidates’ Facebook posts. We found that politicians in the 2022 election are sharing more links to unreliable news sources than they did in 2020, and the increase appears to be driven by nonincumbent Republican candidates.

Conspiracy theories are spreading more wildly than ever. Why now?

How we did our research

Measuring misinformation on social media is complicated. With billions of posts per day on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it would be impossible to examine each one for misinformation. Instead, to approximate the level of misinformation shared by political candidates, we relied on NewsGuard, a nonpartisan organization that provides trust ratings for news sources online.

NewsGuard uses several point-based criteria to assess a site’s credibility and transparency, giving each site a score from 0 to 100 based on how well it adheres to those standards. NewsGuard considers those rated at 60 and above, which include such sources as The Washington Post, New York Times and CNN, to be reliable news sites. It considers those rated under 60, which include Breitbart and Daily Kos, to be unreliable.

We then examined the NewsGuard scores for news sources shared by Democratic and Republican primary and general election candidates for Congress in 2020 and 2022.

From January to July 2020, when Republican congressional candidates shared links to news sources, 8 percent came from sites rated as unreliable, on average each day. For Democratic candidates, the daily average was less than 1 percent.

Two years later, Republican candidates were leaning much more on unreliable news sources. From January to July 2022, on average each day, 36 percent of news that Republican candidates shared came from unreliable sites, while that was true for only 2 percent of news shared by Democratic candidates each day.

Republican nonincumbents shared the most unreliable news

What happened? When we look more closely, we find that Republican nonincumbents, or Republican candidates running to be nominated for open seats or who run against Republican incumbents, are the ones behind the increase in unreliable sources, not Republican incumbents in the Congress. Overall in 2022, Republican incumbents shared news in which a daily average of 6 percent linked to unreliable sources. Meanwhile, Republican challengers shared news that came from unreliable sources 45 percent of the time, on average daily.

Sarah Palin shares the most unreliable news

But there’s one outlier who’s throwing off the 2022 data: Sarah Palin, who is running as a Republican for Alaska’s sole House seat. As of July 12, 2022, she has shared 849 links to unreliable sources, out of 853 total, for more than 99 percent of her shared sources this year. Palin mostly shares blog posts from her own website, which NewsGuard rates as unreliable. The next closest is Rob Cornicelli, a Republican running in New York, who has shared 88 links to unreliable sources, or 65 percent of his total.

How would removing Palin’s unusually high percentages affect the overall averages? The findings remain similar though they are less stark. Without her, from January to July 2022, Republican congressional candidates shared news from unreliable sources 12 percent of the time. While that’s a significant drop from the 36 percent we found when we included Palin, it’s still a 50 percent increase from about 8 percent in 2020.

The difference between incumbent and other Republican candidates shrinks as well. Without including Palin’s averages, Republican nonincumbents share about 14 percent of their news from unreliable sources, compared to about 6 percent from incumbent Republicans.

Notably, NewsGuard has changed its rankings to rate both Fox and MSNBC as unreliable sources. That wasn’t true for the period we analyzed. But when we redo our analysis with Fox and MSNBC rated as unreliable, the changes are slight: Republicans share more unreliable news than Democrats, but the differences between incumbent and nonincumbent Republicans shrinks.

The hearings show a democracy in crisis. Civic education can help.

This is happening on other social media platforms

Other research suggests similar trends on other platforms as well. Since 2016, Republican members of Congress have been increasingly sharing links to untrustworthy sources on Twitter, and especially since Joe Biden’s election, according to the recent working paper of political scientist Jana Lasser, while nothing similar has happened among Democrats.

This primary season, Republicans have nominated over 80 congressional candidates who falsely say Trump won the 2020 election. Clearly, more candidates will be sharing links from unreliable news sources as we head into the general election this November. In a democratic society that allows politicians a great deal of latitude in their speech, what does it mean that candidates are increasingly spreading misinformation and lies?

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Maggie Macdonald (@MG_Macdonald) is a postdoctoral fellow at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

Megan A. Brown (@m_dot_brown) is a research scientist at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

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