Study Casts Doubt On Fake News Affecting Election Results

Fake news was probably the most over-used word of 2016-7. This was used to refer to both false information (as if this was a brand new problem) and subsequently used to refer to any material people did not like, regardless of its veracity. Hillary Clinton has used claims that fake news affected the election to support censorship. Facebook has been censoring legitimate news in their overreaction to fake news. While I don’t think that anyone doubts that the internet is full of false information, the more important question is whether people are actually fooled by it. While providing no definitive answer, The New York Times reported on a study which presents reasons to question whether fake news had a significant effect on the 2016 election results.

Not surprisingly fake news is widespread, and more widespread in conservative circles.  The study found that, “the most conservative 10 percent of the sample accounted for about 65 percent of visits to fake news sites.” That comes as little surprise after the 2016 election. There were both factual and totally fictitious reasons spread in 2016 as to vote against Hillary Clinton. In contrast, while some attacks on Donald Trump might have had some minor errors, the case against him was generally based upon reality. Plus there is a long history of false information coming from conservative sites, such as the Birther claims when Obama was president, and much of what is on Fox every night. (Unfortunately MSNBC is now acting increasingly like Fox).

From the description of the study:

In the new study, a trio of political scientists — Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College (a regular contributor to The Times’s Upshot), Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter — analyzed web traffic data gathered from a representative sample of 2,525 Americans who consented to have their online activity monitored anonymously by the survey and analytic firm YouGov.

The data included website visits made in the weeks before and after the 2016 election, and a measure of political partisanship based on overall browsing habits. (The vast majority of participants favored Mr. Trump or Hillary Clinton.)

The team defined a visited website as fake news if it posted at least two demonstrably false stories, as defined by economists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow in research published last year. On 289 such sites, about 80 percent of bogus articles supported Mr. Trump.

A key finding was that, “false stories were a small fraction of the participants’ overall news diet, regardless of political preference: just 1 percent among Clinton supporters, and 6 percent among those pulling for Mr. Trump. Even conservative partisans viewed just five fake news articles, on average, over more than five weeks.”

Most of the people reading fake news were both intensely partisan, probably making them unlikely to change their minds based upon fake claims, and obtained information from a variety of sources (hopefully making them more likely to see through fake news):

“For all the hype about fake news, it’s important to recognize that it reached only a subset of Americans, and most of the ones it was reaching already were intense partisans,” Dr. Nyhan said.

“They were also voracious consumers of hard news,” he added. “These are people intensely engaged in politics who follow it closely.”

Given the ratio of truth to fiction, Dr. Watts said, fake news paled in influence beside mainstream news coverage, particularly stories about Mrs. Clinton and her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Coverage of that topic appeared repeatedly and prominently in venues like The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Of course many Democratic partisans are likely to see the email scandal as fake news. As I noted at the start of this post, fake news has increasingly been used to refer to material people do not like, regardless of whether it is factual.

It was not terribly surprising to see that, “Facebook was by far the platform through which people most often navigated to a fake news site.” However the article does not compare this to the amount of factual information which is also navigated to through Facebook. Regardless, Facebook is hardly the best way for people to get their news, as this post at Mashable pointed out.

This data does not say definitely whether fake news affected the election result. Is possible that some people did vote against Clinton based upon false information in the battleground states which cost her the election. However, considering what the study shows about the readers of fake news, it is more likely that economic conditions in the rust belt, along with Clinton’s many mistakes while campaigning, as opposed to reading some of the more outlandish fake stories about Hillary Clinton, cost her the election. It is doubtful that fake news had any more impact than the rather insignificant Russian ads on social media.

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  1. 1
    Mike Hatcher says:

    I like your article. I think you make a great point about: "..question is whether people are actually fooled by it." I am also convinced that no matter how well intentioned or skilled the ones who conducted the study are, it would be an extremely difficult objective to measure. Consider first the Hawthorne effect, (aka observer effect). In my own biased mind, how did they get that many "conservatives" to agree to have their browsing monitored, given the stereotype (perhaps true) of conservative propensities towards adult websites. Did they stay away from those sites while being monitored and then click on more pro-Trump stories because they had click bait photos of Melania in a bikini? I admire the efforts of the study, and I tend to believe the conclusions of the study were valid, but ultimately I'm convinced that there is far more that we don't know about how a human mind works than what we do know.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Plus should add whether it affected their vote, regardless of whether they were fooled. In other words, some conservatives probably were fooled into believing false things about Clinton, but they already were not going to vote for her, and even if they were conned by fake news, they still voted the same as they would have without the fake news.

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