Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Cyprus University of Technology and University College London recently conducted a study where they looked at how both mainstream and alternative news flows through multiple social media platforms.

The researchers concluded that alternative news originating from 4chan, an image-based discussion forum where users are anonymous, and Reddit, a social news aggregator where users vote up or down on posts, “have a surprisingly large influence on Twitter.”

Story Amplify’s Take

“Social media cannot be underestimated when it comes to its power to transform news,” said Trey Robinson, Managing Partner of Theme Communications. “Even more importantly, in the right hands, it can transform news stories from non-traditional sources into powerful vehicles of awareness that can influence prospective and existing customers.”

The team gathered information from posts, threads and comments on Twitter, Reddit and 4chan that contained URLs from 45 mainstream and 54 alternative news websites. Activity on the three platforms was measured between June 20, 2016, and Feb. 28, 2017.

They analyzed more than 400,000 tweets, 1.8 million posts and comments on Reddit, and 97,000 posts and replies on 4chan. After analyzing the occurrence of 99 URLs on the top 20 mainstream and alternative news sites, they found Breitbart.com made up 55 percent of the URLs from six selected subreddits, and the nytimes.com made up 14 percent. Breitbart.com made up 44 percent of the URLs on Twitter, while theguardian.com made up 19 percent, and Breitbart.com made up 53 percent of the URLs, with theguardian.com making up 14 percent.

Using the unique URLs across all platforms and the time they first pop up, the team analyzed their appearance in one, two or three platforms, and the order in which the appearance occurred. Examination of the path of a URL reveals the domains whose URLs tend to appear first on each of the platforms.

Flow of Mainstream News

For the mainstream news domains, the group found that URLs from nytimes.com and cnn.com tend to appear first more often on Reddit than Twitter and 4chan. On the other hand, URLs from other domains like bbc.com and theguardian.com tend to appear first more often on Twitter than Reddit. There was no instance where mainstream news URLs tended to appear first on 4chan.

Flow of Alternative News

The group found that breitbart.com URLs appear first in Reddit more often than on Twitter, and more frequently than they do on 4chan. However, for other popular alternative domains, such as infowars.com, rt.com and sputniknews.com, URLs appear first on Twitter more often than Reddit and 4chan. As is the case with the mainstream domains, there was no domain where 4chan dominates in terms of first URL appearance.

In addition to studying how news is shared on the three platforms, the researchers were able to estimate how much influence each platform has on the information shared on other platforms, using a mathematical technique knowns as Hawkes process.

The group measured the influence of six subreddits from Reddit.com, “The Donald,” “politics,” “worldnews,” “AskReddit,” “conspiracy,” and “news,” the “/pol/” board on 4chan and the Twitter platform. They found that Twitter has a heavy influence on the posting of URLs from alternative news sites on the other social platforms, and is the most influential single source for most of the other web communities.

“These platforms have become an important piece of the modern information ecosystem,” said Jeremy Blackburn, Ph.D, a co-founder of the International Data-driven Research for Advanced Modelling and Analysis Lab, or iDRAMA Lab, an international group of scientists focusing on modern socio-technical issues with expertise ranging from low-level cryptography to video games.