2018 | Knight Foundation

Disinformation Campaigns on Twitter

Dataviz

Who’s behind the spread of “Fake News?” On the eve of the 2018 U.S. midterm election, the non-profit, community-building research group Knight Foundation collaborated with Accurat to analyze data from Twitter and investigate how misinformation could have spread during the 2016 presidential election. Together, they examined what has changed -- and what hasn’t -- in the years since.

Brief

Knight Foundation’s study was one of the most comprehensive ever conducted on the subject. Analyzing more than 10,000,000 million tweets from 700,000 accounts, the team found an abundance of hired-hands and bots responsible for the widespread propagation of false reports. Overall, the report linked 6.6 million tweets to disreputable sources in the month before the 2016 election, and an additional 4 million over another month in the spring of 2017.

With social media only continuing to grow in influence and specious activity showing no signs of slowing, Knight Foundation’s findings were urgent. But couched in a 60-plus-page report, the average person was unlikely to stumble upon them. Knight Foundation needed a way to summarize their intel and explain key points in a way that would engage the general public. They turned to Accurat to create a digital experience that would cut through the noise of Fake News with powerful visuals.

Solution

To showcase the study’s discoveries, Accurat summoned familiar iconography. The responsive microsite brought Knight Foundation’s report to life with visuals that called to mind birds in flight, in a nod to the platform in question.
Focusing on the 24-hour-period before the election, Accurat portrayed individual accounts as birds and their activity as flight paths. Tweets constituted a deviation in course, and were represented as “spikes” in an otherwise straight line. Comparing similar accounts, one can discern nearly identical flight paths that resemble flocks: an apt representation of accounts chirping in unison.
A second phase of the interactive experience shows the same user accounts’ activity over time, focusing on five busy days for relevant hashtags -- i.e. #Wikileaks and #SethRich. Orienting the same flight path methodology around a 24-hour-clock graphic, one can discern a clear difference in human versus bogus activity. Outsized spikes appear unnatural both because of their size and the regularity of their occurrence. While regular users tend to tweet sporadically during the day, bots and hired agents tweet at regular intervals, and oftentimes at odd hours of the night. Accurat emphasized this detail with a gradient that darkened as nighttime hours ticked by.
To show the correlation among different interest groups -- Trump supporters, hard-edge conservatives, white nationalist groups -- Accurat color-coded accounts. Toward the end of the visual, we simplified the 44 hues that colored accounts with a blended image showing how disparate interests joined together to form a solid and formidable front.

Process

Accurat’s designers and developers worked in close collaboration with Knight Foundation to adapt research into a user-friendly “scrollytelling” experience. To accomplish this, we pared the report down to its most salient features and essential components. We shaped these elements into an educational narrative with explanatory text and visuals that gradually increased in complexity. The resulting design broadens the reach of the report to (crucially) include non-experts.
To further ensure accessibility, Accurat built versions optimized for both mobile and desktop. The entire endeavor was completed in just three months.

Results

In adapting a lengthy, non-profit research report to a user-friendly, device-agnostic digital experience, Accurat helped further Knight Foundation’s mission of advancing journalism and preserving the integrity of communications in the 21st century. The report and Accurat’s take on it earned organic media, with coverage in Politico, NPR, and Adweek, among other outlets.
Team
Ruggero Castagnola
Sara Confalonieri
Gabriele Lippi
Giorgia Lupi
Alberto Massa
Tommaso Renzini
Gabriele Rossi
Cesare Soldini
Mariano Viola
Alessandro Zotta
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