Continuing our Six Questions series on the Social Media and Democracy Research Grantees, this month we spotlight members of one of the project’s two teams from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Under the leadership of coprincipal investigators Drs. Sebastián Valenzuela and Magdalena Saldaña, this team aims to compare the virality of false news with verified news, and identify the root cause of the spread of misinformation in Chile.

Six Questions: False News on Facebook during the 2017 Chilean Elections: Analyzing Its Content, Diffusion, and Audience Characteristics
Sebastián Valenzuela, Associate Professor, School of Communications at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; and Tinker Visiting Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of Wisconsin–Madison
Magdalena Saldaña, Assistant Professor, School of Communications at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Bárbara Poblete, Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science, Universidad de Chile; and Associate Researcher, the Millennium Institute for Foundational Research on Data (IMFD)

What trends have you seen related to democracy and social media?
Dr. Poblete: We’ve seen the emergence of information manipulation online, especially by agents who are very effective at getting their polarized perspectives online and making those perspectives echo farther than others. Many of these polarized perspectives are gaining a lot of online momentum and are becoming more amplified, which is why we’ve been studying ways to automatically separate different types of information online.

What are the core concerns/questions that your research hopes to address?
Dr. Saldaña: We want to find out what elements lead to the spread of information; what groups are more likely to spread that information; and what topics are most suitable to become viral, especially misinformation vs. real information. We also want to compare how and why real viral news and fake viral news spread on social media.

What has motivated you to pursue this research?
Dr. Saldaña: I’ve already been doing research on political polarization, digital media, and social media for news consumption—I’m a former journalist so these topics relate to me directly. But I also think that all of this is very important and cool. In my time, we didn’t have social media to report news or disseminate stories. Now, my students get informed on social media, and it’s impossible for them to think of a time when they wouldn’t have social media to do everything for them. It’s also been very interesting to analyze how news consumption can vary between behaviors that are offline and behaviors that are online, and the ways you can encounter misinformation when social media is your only news source.

What knowledge and tools from past research are you bringing to this project?
Dr. Valenzuela: I’ve been working mostly with survey data on measuring exposure, beliefs, and sharing of false information, fake news, and misinformation. What we’ve found in the research we’ve done in Chile so far is that Chile has all of the elements that, abroad, have been found to be related to the fake news problem. Much of the population actually has misperceptions about many things—not only politics, but also about health and natural disasters. And, what we’ve found is that social media, particularly Facebook, is especially related to this problem. It’s where most people are exposed to all sorts of misinformation, and it’s also where it spreads the most or is talked about. So, the survey evidence suggests that through this project, we’re going to have a better measurement of the nature or the scope of the problem.

What outcomes are you expecting from this research/how exactly are you hoping that your findings will affect society overall?
Dr. Valenzuela: When you study fake news and only fake news, you’re bound to find a number of interesting results. But if you do so without relating them to the context of what happens with real news, you’ll end up with an incorrect diagnostic. We want to study false news stories alongside verified news stories, how the two spread, and what the elements are that lead to their spreading. We already have some clues to our outcomes—for example, we know content that is emotional is going to go more viral than content that is not, but do these same emotions trigger the sharing of fake news or not, and why would that be the case?

What’s next in your research? (Barbara/Sebastian) Immediate next steps—assuming all goes well, what do you see as building on this particular project?
Dr. Poblete: Overall, we want to start thinking about how to viralize truthful news more so than fake news. One of our immediate next steps would be trying to scale the work we’ve been doing to other countries in South America to have a larger user base and make the most out of the data we’ll have access to because Chile is such a small country. I would also like to extend this research to other languages, which I think is valuable and we’ll be one of the few teams in this group looking into that.

Participants on this team that were not interviewed include:
Benjamín Bustos, Universidad de Chile
Juan Pablo Luna, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
Jorge Pérez, Universidad de Chile

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

For more information on the Social Media and Democracy Research Grants, please visit the program page.