March 23, 2023

A new study examines the huge amount of misinformation being disseminated by a small but popular group of political podcasts. In particular, researchers found that claims of election fraud rose by over 600% in the days leading up to the Capitol insurrection, with the increase concentrated, unsurprisingly, among conservative media.

The study, conducted by the Brookings Institution, analyzed 36,603 episodes from 79 different podcast series in order to determine podcasting’s effect on public discourse.

What researchers found was that nearly 70% of the podcasts they examined shared at least one unsubstantiated or false claim, as did at least one out of 20 episodes—1,863 episodes total—recorded by prominent hosts.

Due in part to his prodigious output, the researchers found that Steve Bannon was the worst offender, blasting out dozens of episodes a week. 

“Bannon’s War Room, which produced both a high number of episodes and shared the most unsubstantiated or false claims in the dataset, topped the list, with close to 20% of all episodes assessed during this period including claims that Snopes and Politifact fact-checkers or the terms dictionary flagged as false or unsubstantiated,” the researchers noted.

They also found that just ten podcasts contributed more than 60% of the unsubstantiated and false claims about politics and public health in their research, and conservative hosts were 11 times more likely than liberals to share such information. 

The Big Lie held a significant place within this trend: “After voters cast their ballots, podcast hosts and guests regularly promoted the lie that the election had been stolen from Trump, relying on debunked evidence, hearsay, and blatant conspiracy tropes to bolster their claims,” the researchers’ report on their findings reads.

Social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter faced increased scrutiny for the role they played spreading misinformation leading up to the attack. “At the time,” the study notes, “podcasts barely registered as a concern.”

Researchers examined 3,916 podcast episodes that aired between the political party conventions of 2020 and the Capitol insurrection, finding that one out of every seven episodes featured unverified information.

Right-wing shows had an outsized presence in their sample. This imbalance was “not a deliberate choice,” the study says, “but rather a function of how popular these series are across the medium and how likely Apple is to recommend them.”

For example, Bannon’s “War Room,” currently one of the top-ranked “news” series on Apple Podcasts, publishes up to four episodes a day, up to six days a week. Liberal shows like Pod Save America, meanwhile, publish new content about twice a week.

Among 79 popular political shows the researchers looked at, thirteen of them have produced over 1,000 episodes, and all but two of them were conservative.

Election fraud claims rose by 600%, from 3% of all episodes between August and November 2020, to more than 28% of all episodes between Nov. 3, 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021. And 29 out of 79 shows shared at least one misleading election claim, while nine shows shared 25 or more or devoted more than half of the episode to election misinformation.

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