Politicians from mainstream parties in the UK and Germany post far fewer links to untrustworthy websites on Twitter and this has been constant since 2016, according to our new research. In contrast, US politicians posted a much higher percentage of unreliable content in their tweets, and that percentage has increased sharply since 2020.
We also found systematic differences between parties in the United States, with Republican politicians found to share untrustworthy websites more than nine times as often as Democrats.
For Republicans, a total of about 4% (one in 25) of links were unreliable compared to about 0.4% (one in 250) among Democrats, and that gap has widened in recent years. Since 2020, more than 5% of Republican tweets have contained links to unreliable information. The Democrats have remained stable, sharing mostly information that is reliable.
Over the five-year period we studied, ordinary elected UK MPs shared only 74 links to disinformation (0.01%), compared to 4,789 (1.8%) from elected ordinary US politicians and 812 (1.3%) from German politicians.
Building on previous work showing how former US President Donald Trump was able to set the political agenda with Twitter, we conducted a systematic investigation of the accuracy of tweets from parliamentarians in three countries: the US, UK and Germany.
Together with colleagues David Garcia, Fabio Carrella, Almog Simchon and Segun Aroyehun, we collected all available tweets from past and present members of the US Congress, the German Parliament and the UK Parliament. In total, we collected more than 3 million tweets from 2016 to 2022.
To determine the reliability of information shared by the politicians, we extracted all external website links contained in the tweets and then used the NewsGuard database to assess the reliability of the linked domain.
NewsGuard curates a large number of sites in many different countries and languages and evaluates them based on nine criteria that characterize responsible journalism – for example, whether a site publishes corrections and whether it differentiates between opinion and news.
Our team looked at MPs from the UK Conservative and Labor parties and from Germany (Greens, SPD, FDP, CDU/CSU) as well as US Republican and Democratic politicians.
Members of the conservative parties in Germany (CDU/CSU) and the United Kingdom (Conservatives) shared links to unreliable websites more often than their center or center-left counterparts. But even conservative parliamentarians in Europe were more accurate than US Democrats, with only about 0.2% (one in 500) of links from European conservatives being unreliable.
We repeated our analyzes using a second database of news site credibility instead of NewsGuard. This robustness check was important to minimize the risk of potential bias in what is considered “unreliable”.
The second database was compiled by academics and fact checkers such as Media Bias/Fact Check. It is reassuring that the results matched our primary analyzes and we find the same trends.
Read more: Three reasons why misinformation is so pervasive and what we can do about it
The world has been awash with concern about the state of our political discourse for many years now. There is ample justification for this concern, given that 30-40% of Americans believe the baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” by President Biden, and given that around 10% of the British public believe at least one conspiracy theory around covid-19.
Much of the discussion of the disinformation problem—and much of the blame—has focused on social media, and in particular the algorithms that curate our news feeds and that can nudge us toward more and more extreme and outrageous content. There is now substantial evidence that social media has been harmful to democracy in at least some countries.
However, social media is not the only source of the problem of misinformation. Donald Trump made more than 30,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency and there are political leaders in Europe who have a bad track record.
Compared to the wealth of research that has focused on the role of social media, and the relationship between technology and democracy more generally, however, there have been few attempts to systematically characterize the role of political leaders in the dissemination of low-quality information.
Our findings are interesting in light of several recent analyzes of the American public’s news diet, which have repeatedly shown that conservatives are more likely to encounter and share unreliable information than liberals. Until now, the origin of that difference has been disputed.
Our results contribute to a potential explanation if we assume that what politicians say sets the agenda and resonates with the public. By sharing disinformation, Republican members of Congress not only provide direct disinformation to their followers, but also legitimize the sharing of unreliable information more generally.