The fake effect of fake news on election results
If I were to report to you that fake news had any real effect on the outcome of our recent presidential election, you could reasonably accuse me of reporting fake news.
But I’m not. Because it didn’t.
And, while we’re at it, let’s state another truth here: The biggest reason fake news became a “thing” is because Trump won the election and most media outlets can’t understand why. They are scratching their head trying to figure out why the electorate didn’t do what they predicted it would and why they didn’t listen to all the (mostly anti-Trump) news that they were pumping out.
But back to the truth about fake news: A couple of really smart economists (Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford and Hunt Allcott of New York University) said that, based on their research, the effect that fake news had on voters was probably negligible.
I say probably because I think they are being careful to not state any firm conclusions for fear of being accused of promoting fake research.
“A reader of our study could very reasonably say, based on our set of facts, that it is unlikely that fake news swayed the election,” said Gentzkow. “But that conclusion ultimately depends on what readers think is a reasonable benchmark for the persuasiveness of an individual fake news story.”
Enough of the butt-covering! Here’s what they found: In the three months before the election, pro-Trump fabricated stories that they tracked were shared on social media a total of 30 million times; pro-Clinton fake stories were shared a total of 7.6 million times.
Despite those large numbers, Gentzkow and Allcott found that the fake news stories that were most-highly circulated were still only seen by a tiny fraction of Americans and, of that tiny number, only about half of them actually believed it.
Here’s where it gets really hard to believe that fake news swayed the election: Allcott and Gentzkow found that even if a voter remembered a fake news story and believed it (two long shots already), “…the story would need to have been surprisingly persuasive to have changed his or her vote.”
Fewer than one-in-five people surveyed remembered seeing the average fake news headline and about 8 percent recalled believing it if they did indeed read it.
Here’s the funny part: Those numbers were very similar to the numbers for the placebo headlines that were presented to survey respondents. In other words, the fake fake stories — fake headlines that never actually circulated on social media — scored similarly to fake news headlines that did.
When Gentzkow and Allcott corrected for that, they estimated that only 1.2 percent of people actually recalled seeing the average fake story. They remembered about .92 pro-Trump fake stories and about .23 pro-Clinton ones.
As to whether or not a fake news story actually swayed a voter under these circumstances, our fearless researchers conclude this: “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”
What’s hilarious (in my estimation) is that based on this research, it would be easy to hypothesize that mainstream media outlets did more to expose people to fake news than social media did simply by pointing out fake news’ existence.
Nice job, guys!
Don’t be mad at them, though. They only did it because they think you’re dumb and that you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.
They were operating under the assumption that crazy stories are going to make you vote for crazy people and (most importantly) you perpetrated this craziness after they told you not to!
There is but a short list of things that the media have less regard for than fake stories. Unfortunately, the intelligence of the American people is on that list.
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