Can you stand one more discussion of “fake news”?
The Washington Post has reported on a study that strongly suggests Trump owes his 2016 upset win to the same “fake news” he regularly excoriates.
The study from researchers at Ohio State Universityfinds that fake news probably played a significant role in depressing Hillary Clinton’s support on Election Day. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed but which may be the first look at how fake news affected voter choices, suggests that about 4 percent of President Barack Obama’s 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016 by belief in fake news stories.
Here are the false stories, along with the percentages of Obama supporters who believed they were at least “probably” true (in parenthesis):
- Clinton was in “very poor health due to a serious illness” (12 percent)
- Pope Francis endorsed Trump (8 percent)
- Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, “including ISIS” (20 percent)
The researchers determined that twenty-five percent of those who had voted in 2012 for Obama believed at least one of the three stories. Of that group–that is, of the voters who believed at least one of the fake news stories– 45 percent voted for Clinton. Of the Obama voters who did not believe any of the fake news stories, 89 percent voted for Clinton.
This alone does not prove that fake news made a difference, of course. A recent Princeton-led studyof fake news consumption during the 2016 campaign found that false articles made up 2.6 percent of all hard-news articles late in the 2016 campaign, with the stories most often reaching intense partisans who probably were not persuadable. And it wouldn’t be surprising if Obama voters who weren’t reliable Democratic supporters were more apt to believe fake news stories that affirmed their decision not to vote for Clinton.
So the researchers sought to control for other factors such as gender, race, age, education, political leaning and even personal feelings about Clinton and Trump using multiple regression analysis, a method to measure the relative impact of multiple independent variables. According to the researchers, all of these factors combined to explain 38 percent of the defection of Obama voters from Clinton, but belief in fake news explained an additional 11 percent.
Other researchers ran a variety of other simulations using the data from the Ohio State study, and the consensus was that fake news cost Clinton about 2.2 or 2.3 points apiece in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Clinton lost Michigan by 0.2 points, Pennsylvania by 0.72 and Wisconsin 0.76 points.
Disinformation, propaganda, “fake news”–whatever we want to call it– is a significant and growing problem, and that problem isn’t limited to political campaigns. Recognition of the proliferation of unreliable information has undercut public trust in government and in other important institutions. As Anne Applebaum recently wrote, also in the Washington Post, it isn’t just Russian bots we need to worry about.
Fox News and the Trump-friendly media operate in exactly the same way. As I’ve written in the past, Donald Trump openly used Russian slogans and narratives during his 2016 election campaign.
At the moment, though, he doesn’t need to borrow from them anymore. A recent New York Times analysis of how the president came to be obsessed with the “caravan of illegal aliens” listed the ways the original story came to be enhanced and misreported, deliberately, by what we would in another country call pro-regime media. As retold on “Fox & Friends,” or hyped by Frontpage Mag, “Beltway pundit,” and thousands of bots and trolls (both voluntary and professional), the story lost some critical details: that many of the group were refugees from Honduras’s drug wars, or that many planned to stay in Mexico, or that others hope to cross the U.S. border legally to apply for asylum. By the time the tale of the caravan reached the president’s Twitter feed — which has featured faked or mislabeled video in the past, as well — it was an “invasion” requiring the presence of the National Guard.
We can’t do much about the expression of opinion, but gatekeepers can verify or debunk factual assertions. The problem is, except in what we now call “legacy media” we no longer have gatekeepers. And thanks to the ubiquity of social media, disinformation spreads.
As someone once said “A lie can travel around the world three times while truth is still putting on its pants.”
That’s a big problem, and we need to solve it.