In the wake of November’s election, a shellshocked mainstream media began to push a narrative that is now so well-known that President Trump has taken to mocking it in his press conferences: That Hillary Clinton lost the election in part because of the proliferation of “fake news” stories that convinced the public to vote for Trump based on fabrications and lies. But did those propaganda items—and there were a number of fake stories that spread widely on the internet—actually move the needle in Trump’s favor, or were they merely persuasive to those who were already hardcore partisans?
The New York Times reports on a recent Stanford study that strongly suggests the latter. The authors (to paraphrase the Times) offered 1,208 U.S. adults a number of different headlines, including real headlines from the campaign, “fake news” headlines (such as ones relating to Pizzagate) that had circulated on social media, and “fake fake news,” or “the type of thing fake sites actually produce, but had not actually been published during the campaign.”
If fake news produced by trolls and profiteers had actually had a persuasive effect—that is, if the propaganda worked—we would have expected the researchers to find that more people believed those stories than the ones the researchers made up as controls. Instead, the numbers were almost identical. The Times:
As many people recalled seeing and believing fake news that had been published and distributed through social media as recalled seeing fake news that had never existed and was purely an invention of researchers.
That’s a strong indication about what is going on with consumers of fake news. It may be less that false information from dubious news sources is shaping their view of the world. Rather, some people (about 8 percent of the adult population, if we take the survey data at face value) are willing to believe anything that sounds plausible and fits their preconceptions about the heroes and villains in politics.
Of course, this study does not suggest that fake news is benign. The trumped up political stories in question are, as Jonathan Haidt has put it, “crack for righteous minds.” They might make partisans more fervent in their beliefs and less willing to listen to those who disagree. And lies of all kinds are corrosive to honest self-government.
But the study does cast doubt on the idea that the false stories peddled on the internet actually meaningfully moved the voting public. It seems more likely that the handful of viral, outrageous pro-Trump simply confirmed the pre-existing beliefs of Trump voters without doing much to persuade anyone else.
Media and political elites continue to make a serious mistake in continuing to cast about wildly for ways to blame others—fake news traffickers, the Russians, racist know-nothing Americans—for Donald Trump’s electoral upset. His election is evidence of a real failure of democratic institutions at large and the credentialed people who manage them. Instead of looking for scapegoats, people in positions of power should be looking internally at how our process is failing and has failed. When it comes to journalism, that means trying to understand why the mainstream press has lost credibility in the eyes of the public, and looking for ways to rebuild it so that internet snake-oil salesmen don’t get a hearing in the first place.