Washington, DC – Fake news has had a bum rap, but as it turns out, what’s considered “fake” to one person is considered “real” by someone else. To use the blanket term “fake” is to ignore the reality that news, whether we like it or not will always be tainted by the biases of its presenters, writers and editorial teams. So to claim that “fake news” was what swayed the 2016 U.S. presidential election is to go on one-way trip to denial that fails to take personal responsibility for the genuine issues that divided America which then-candidate Donald Trump was addressing.
A growing number of studies are concluding that it’s not just fake news that has limited persuasive power, but all forms of political persuasion, including political ads have limited bearing on the outcome of an election.
The conclusion may sound jarring to Democrats who are obsessed with the effects of fake news articles that allegedly flooded Facebook and other online outlets during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But for Democrats looking to find answers to their defeat in 2016, fake news provides little comfort. Liberal observers speculated that these so-called fake news articles swung the election to Donald Trump. Similar suggestions of large persuasion effects, supposedly pushing Trump to victory have been made about online advertising from the firm Cambridge Analytica and content allegedly promoted by Russian bots.
Although much more remains to be learned about the effects of these types of online activities, Democrats should not assume that they had huge effects, regardless of how much comfort they may derive from this delusion. Previous studies have found, for example, that the effects of even television advertising, a higher-impact medium, are very small.
According to one credible estimate, the net effect of exposure to an additional political ad shifts the partisan vote of approximately two people out of 10,000 or 0.02 percent – a statistically negligible amount and certainly insufficient to swing an election.
In fact, a recent meta-analysis of numerous different forms of campaign persuasion, including in-person canvassing and mail, finds that their average effect in general elections is a big fat zero.
Field experiments testing the effects of online ads on political candidates and issues have also found null effects. But the results shouldn’t surprise us at all – it’s hard to change people’s minds. Their votes are shaped by fundamental factors like which party they typically support and how they view the state of the economy. “Fake news” and bots are likely to have much smaller effects, especially given how polarized our politics have become.
So before you accept the narrative propagated by the political left that “fake news” is a cancer threatening our democracy, it’s helpful to consider the genuine persuasive power of the alleged “fake news” piece.
How many people actually saw the questionable material?
Although many alarming statistics have been produced since the election about how many times “fake news” was shared on Facebook or how many times Russian bots retweeted content on Twitter, these statistics obscure the fact that the content being shared my not reach many Americans (most Americans are not on Twitter and those that are on, consumer relatively little political news). A typical “cat video” will reach more Americans than a political tweet.
Are the people being exposed to the questionable material even “persuadable”?
Political content online is disproportionately likely to reach heavy news consumers who already have formed strong opinions. Because Google and Facebook algorithms are in a constant race to keep feeding a user’s existing media taste, these users will be fed pretty much the same political content that they were drawn to to begin with.
In a study conducted by Andrew Guess of Princeton University, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, exposure to fake news websites before the 2016 election was heavily concentrated among the 10 percent of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Far from swing voters, the allegedly fake news pieces landed on the screens of Americans who had already made up their mind before the first click or share.
How much news is “fake” anyway?
Going by the liberal talking heads on the likes of CNN and the other mainstream media outlets, you would think that number is huge, but the reality is that it’s not even a fraction of a fraction of the amount of information shared online. Twitter for instance, reported that Russian bots tweeted 2.1 million times before the election – which sounds like a huge number until you consider that this only represented 1 percent of all election-related tweets and 0.5 percent of views of election-related tweets.
Guess, Reifler and Nyhan’s study also found the mean number of articles on fake news websites visited by Trump supporters was 13.1, but only 40 percent of his supporters visited such websites and they represented only 6 percent of the pages they visited on news sites.
So regardless of what the mainstream media and their Democratic sympathizers will have us believe, fake news is just really not that big of a problem. Which even based on anecdotal evidence would seem to be the case as well. Say you’re a fan of a sports team, you’re more likely to visit sites that speak well of the team’s chances, visit their fan sites, go on internet forums which support the team and generally inundate your media diet in an echo chamber of the views you already hold. Americans are not a vacuous bunch of dimbulbs drifting from news article to news article, ready to drop lifelong political affiliations at the drop of a hat. Our democracy is stronger than that and its integrity depends on an electoral base that chooses what information it consumes and forms an opinion based on existing fundamental core beliefs. A Russian bot or even a million Russian bots will not change that anytime soon.