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What the fake? Assessing the extent of networked political spamming and bots in the propagation of #fakenews on Twitter

Ahmed Al-Rawi (Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada)
Jacob Groshek (Boston University College of Communication, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Li Zhang (Boston University College of Communication, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 11 October 2018

Issue publication date: 12 February 2019




The purpose of this paper is to examine one of the largest data sets on the hashtag use of #fakenews that comprises over 14m tweets sent by more than 2.4m users.


Tweets referencing the hashtag (#fakenews) were collected for a period of over one year from January 3 to May 7 of 2018. Bot detection tools were employed, and the most retweeted posts, most mentions and most hashtags as well as the top 50 most active users in terms of the frequency of their tweets were analyzed.


The majority of the top 50 Twitter users are more likely to be automated bots, while certain users’ posts like that are sent by President Donald Trump dominate the most retweeted posts that always associate mainstream media with fake news. The most used words and hashtags show that major news organizations are frequently referenced with a focus on CNN that is often mentioned in negative ways.

Research limitations/implications

The research study is limited to the examination of Twitter data, while ethnographic methods like interviews or surveys are further needed to complement these findings. Though the data reported here do not prove direct effects, the implications of the research provide a vital framework for assessing and diagnosing the networked spammers and main actors that have been pivotal in shaping discourses around fake news on social media. These discourses, which are sometimes assisted by bots, can create a potential influence on audiences and their trust in mainstream media and understanding of what fake news is.


This paper offers results on one of the first empirical research studies on the propagation of fake news discourse on social media by shedding light on the most active Twitter users who discuss and mention the term “#fakenews” in connection to other news organizations, parties and related figures.



This paper forms part of a special section “Social media mining for journalism”.


Al-Rawi, A., Groshek, J. and Zhang, L. (2019), "What the fake? Assessing the extent of networked political spamming and bots in the propagation of #fakenews on Twitter", Online Information Review, Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 53-71.



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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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