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How Fake News Happens: Hillary Edition

Photo: Recode

During a lengthy conversation at Recode’s Code Conference this afternoon, Hillary Clinton inadvertently offered a simple object lesson in how fake news spreads. She did so by bringing up yesterday’s frantic reports about large, mysterious hordes of newly created Twitter accounts — most likely bots — following Donald Trump. Indeed, an interesting mystery, but far from nefarious.

Clinton spoke of Russian agents meddling in the election, and then noted, “We see now this new information about Trump’s Twitter followers being populated with millions of bots,” implying some sort of connection between the two.

At the end of her session, responding to a question from Mashable’s Pete Pachal about whether Twitter is good or bad, Clinton again brought up the bots. “Who is behind driving up Trump’s Twitter followers by the millions? We know they’re bots. Why? I assume there’s a reason for everything. Is it to make him look more popular than he is? Is it to try to influence others on Twitter about what the messaging is?”

She spoke of bad actors “sitting in Moscow, or Macedonia, or the White House” — that last one added in a semi-joking tone — bumping up Trump’s follower count as some sort of diversionary tactic.

Except that the oft-repeated statistic of Trump amassing 5 million new Twitter followers over the weekend isn’t really accurate. Archived versions of the page show that over the last five days, Trump has jumped from 30.6 million followers to 31.1 million, a tenth of what was initially stated (viral tweets pushing the 5 million number have also vanished).

Alex Taub, of social-media analytics firm SocialRank, wrote yesterday that the rise in so-called “egg accounts,” nascent and without a profile picture, is explained by a combination of two things: someone buying followers for Trump, or new accounts being encouraged to follow the president of the United States when signing up. Select All reached a similar conclusion yesterday.

There is an obvious and distinct irony in Clinton lamenting “conspiracies, lies, false information,” while accidentally participating in them. She didn’t come right out and draw concrete connections between the bots and a conspiracy, she was just asking questions and speculating, maybe based on something she’d read or an adviser had told her. But that’s how fake news works at the individual level — it gives people bad information to just float out there and mull over, sowing doubt and confusion and offering no clear answers.

How Fake News Happens: Hillary Edition