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Media Myopia
Study Lands Blow Against “Fake News” Panic

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.

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  • Gary Hemminger

    Nothing is going to change the media and elite thinking that their way is the right way. Since it is the right way it must be promoted. But by promoting it they lose objectivity. This is the trap they are in and for which there is no escape

  • Jim__L

    “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.”

    They need to look inward for fault, and outward for advice.

    Unfortunately, as this article points out, they are doing the opposite.

    I blame the gay ‘marriage’ mindworm, for giving Lefty journalists the hubris that they can and should overturn the realities of nature. Believing that requires a huge detachment from reality, and rewarding that kind of cluelessness about the world is one of the biggest mistakes the Supreme Court ever made.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Yes, gay marriage is your mindworm, a complete irrelevancy to the actual lives of over 90% of people——yet used to distract their attention. It is very likely going to stand permanently while a great number of the Republican voters suffer a lot of damage (also permanent) from having their minds so wormed.

      • Psalms564

        Are you saying Republican voters voted against their interests? That doesn’t sound like you like people who don’t agree with you very much. You sure like to call them stupid and try to ban them. Seems like it is really working out well for you.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Republicans who might put in a pool with savings from tax cuts did not vote against their interests. Republicans who are already poor enough to not be paying taxes now did, however.

      • Jim__L

        Gay “marriage” has been used as an excuse to assault the foundation of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This affects far more than the less-than-0.1% of the population that can be expected to participate in it. It’s also complete and utter madness, that will probably fall out of fashion within a few years, at which point sanity can again prevail.

        • FriendlyGoat

          You are believing that courts are going to un-marry people or create a two-tier deal where old marriages stand and new ones are not permitted. I don’t believe it is going to happen—-probably ever. The conservative courts are mostly going to decide business cases in favor of corporations over people and erode rights and protections related to matters such as voting and law enforcement. Stay tuned.

          • brotherStefan

            The courts don’t have to “un-marry” anyone. I suspect that attrition will eventually take care of it. Fads do tend to come and go quite spontaneously.

          • FriendlyGoat

            If that view was prevalent, the church people would not have felt obligated to hurt themselves so badly on everything else to elect Mr. Trump.

          • brotherStefan

            Sorry, but I don’t follow you.

          • FriendlyGoat

            The evangelical church folks got so lathered about gay marriage that 81% of them voted for Republicans to enrich the upper crust and and severely damage the economic prospects of poorer people for years to decades into the future. Nothing else is going to happen because nothing else can happen with the governmental alignment now in office. And here you are—telling those evangelical voters and us that the whole gay marriage trend was going out by attrition anyway and didn’t need the church people to imagine themselves avenging in in the election.

          • brotherStefan

            That’s quite some fabric you’re weaving there, Goat, but I was responding to YOUR words about courts un-marrying people. Now you are going on about Evangelicals getting all lathered up…

            Hard to tell what your argument is at any particular point in time. You can waste more time and energy trying to explain yourself if you like. So long as you find it entertaining…

          • FriendlyGoat

            First of all, let’s remember we are having this conversation because you replied to me (not the other way around) with the odd suggestion that gay people will of their own accord simply stop marrying each other someday as a matter of a fad going out of style.

            If that’s the case, I wish you had told the church instead of me and I wish you had told them before 11/08/16. That way, we could have avoided the alignment of Republicans they elected to do everything EXCEPT reverse the same-sex marriage which was the driver of their votes. Seriously, the evangelical church produced Donald Trump on our national scene. They did it because of Obergefell.
            You could have saved the whole lower economic class of America a LOT of long-term pain by just convincing the church folks to chill.
            Did you tell them? Or just me here?

        • Fred

          As frightening as it is to find myself in agreement with the Goat, Jim, he’s right about one thing. Like no-fault divorce–an insane idea that has wreaked havoc on the American family and harmed generations of American children–the equally insane and destructive gay “marriage” is here to stay. I’m afraid that genie is out of the bottle. It’s one more symptom of our cultural entropy.

          • Jim__L

            If you can put work and energy into a system — and we do have that ability — entropy need not degrade it.

          • Fred

            Well, this is one of the few things we disagree on. I believe our entropy has advanced way over the tipping point. I predict collapse in less than a century.

          • Jim__L

            I’ve got sons. I have to believe we can turn this around.

            And seriously, have I really got anything better to do?

          • Fred

            Point taken.

          • Jim__L

            Your point that things have gotten pretty bad, is very well taken too.

  • f1b0nacc1

    Alex, I’ll take “Confirmation Bias” for $200

  • Matt_Thullen

    “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.”

    That sounds like how the New York Times covers politics. For a great example, see the fake hit piece they ran about Gov. Rick Perry that claimed that he was an idiot who didn’t understand that the Secretary of Energy oversaw assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons. The story was sourced by twisting a quote from one person who wasn’t even around when Perry was nominated, and a one-minute Google search showed that Perry understands full well what the job entails.

    If anything, I’m more forgiving of the authors of the fake right wing news stories. At least we can be assured that they know they’re making things up. I’m not so sure that can be said about the journalists in the mainstream press.

  • Disappeared4x

    126 million Americans voted in 2016, 55% of eligible voters. 90 million did not vote. How many decided they wanted to listen to DJT’s voice and see his family for the next four years, instead of HRC’s voice and family? More than we can ever know…

    Add the Supreme Court, or because they trusted Mike Pence, or because they were fed up being called racists, or because they DID lose access to their doctor…

  • FriendlyGoat

    It does not matter whether fake news changes the mind of an undecided person or merely reinforces the beliefs of people who already decided they find such fare delicious. It is still fake and so are the people who defend it. So, since TAI knows this too, don’t skip the strong disclaimer of the sixth paragraph above.

  • Arkeygeezer

    For the past 18 months, the Progressive Socialist elite together with the Hollywood celebrity class, Academia, and with the full backing of of the mainstream media. have tried to smear, deride, vilify and laugh at Donald J. Trump. While they preached the politically correct “identity politics”, Mr. Trump connected with most Americans through 124 character messages on Twitter, and speeches to multitudes throughout the country that were communicated via Facebook and U-tube.

    In November, he won the election in a manner dictated by the U.S. Constitution, despite losing the popular vote in California and New England. His opposition continued to try and delegitimize his presidency by smear tactics and outright lies. Mr. Trump counterpunched via Twitter and was correct in most of his observations.

    In the past week, he counter-punched the Hollywood left, the racist “civil rights” protagonists, and the mainstream media’s verbose and confused outbursts with the same 124 character jabs on Twitter. He put them all on notice that if you take shots at him or his family personally, he will respond personally.

    In his inauguration address, he clearly outlined what he would try to accomplish in his administration. He also posted his positions on the new White House website: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog (see issues). He also mentioned God more times than any Presidential speech in the last 8 years..

    This resulted in a massive march on Washington by a large group of feminists wearing funny caps, and other progressive groups that made a lot of speeches laced with profanity, but only one unifying theme; they did not like President Trump or the American system of elections.

    My response to this sequence of events is to toast you all with a paraphrase to the old toast in the British Navy:

    God Save the President, and confusion to his enemies!

    So be it. Amen.

  • Joey Junger

    The mainstream media’s main error this cycle was running with the “strong circumstantial evidence of Russian hacking in the election.” Circumstantial evidence (that something could have happened based on the logic of those gathering intel) is not a one-way street.If James Comey falling victim to a phishing scam means it’s possible that the Russians hacked the election, then Hillary’s surrogates in media have opened the floodgates, because there’s strong circumstantial evidence that the Clinton Foundation is a scam, that Hillary used her government positions as a pay-to-play racket, that Hillary has ignored and even facilitated her husband’s sexual predator activity over the course of the decades in her ruthless quest for power (while also somehow remaining a feminist, or something), and yes, in terms of means, motive, and opportunity, it’s more believable to think that Seth Rich may have been the source of the leak in the DNC and was punished for his idealism by being murdered (in an unprofessional hit barely disguised as a robbery).

    As for real evidence of election rigging (not evidence that Podesta is too stupid to use the internet), we know Hillary was fed questions in an advance by friends at CNN, and that she and the democratic Chairthing Debbie Wasserman colluded to make sure democracy didn’t prevail. But using logic, evidence, and facts doesn’t work in this case. The democrats have the mandate of heaven on their side and (according to the people in academia, law, finance, education, and the arts) what democrats do is right because they did it, regardless of what they did.

  • QET

    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.

    The mainstream press has lost credibility because it continues to promote the question-begging, prejudiced “truth” or “fact” that “[h]is election is evidence of a real failure of democratic institutions at large and the credentialed people who manage them.”

    Now look who is jeopardizing its credibility with the same nonsense. I suppose that in the end, TAI and its contributors are far more steadfast in their commitment to “credentialed people” than to “democratic institutions.” Always “us and them”, isn’t it?

  • brotherStefan

    from the article: “… Instead of looking for scapegoats, people in positions of power should be looking internally at how our process is failing and has failed. …”

    Might we consider the possibility that “our process” did not fail at all (except in the minds of those convinced that they lost)?

  • Forbes

    What’s fascinating in all this worry about so-called fake news is that these discussions never cite any examples. Clearly, if fake news were so rampant as to sway voters, there would be dozens of examples of its pervasiveness–but there isn’t. Once anyone gets past the meaninglessness of ‘Russian hacking’ or ‘Macedonian teenagers’ there’s no there there.

    (Pizzagate–or any ‘gate’– doesn’t count because they’re alleged conspiracies of a cover-up or some nefarious conduct, too convoluted for easy comprehension, hence the shorthand name with the ‘gate’ suffix.)

    Trump won because reality diverged from The Narrative pursued by the mainstream, legacy media. Discovering egg on their face, the MSM has to explain it as the voters being swayed by fake news–it certainly couldn’t be that the MSM got it wrong.

  • CruisingTroll

    His election is evidence of a real failure of democratic institutions at large and the credentialed people who manage them.
    No, his election is evidence of the failure of the credentialed people who manage the democratic institutions at large to game the system to THEIR BENEFIT. THAT’S all. Democracy is a PROCESS, and, lo and behold, the institutions IN SPITE OF THE DESIRES OF THEIR MANAGERS, delivered the PROCESS.

  • Terenc Blakely

    I find it amusing and ironic that the main purveyors of fake news are complaining about fake news.

  • Alec Rawls

    Pizzagate was NOT fake news. It was a crowd-sourced investigation into a mass of bizzare emails contained in the wikileaks dump of John Podesta’s email account. The dump included a bunch of what could only be coded emails (“hot dogs” and “cheese”) that seemed to point to a child sex ring (boys and girls). Most of the researchers very carefully qualified their findings as to what could be concluded, and those who overstated what could be concluded lost credibility.

    The whole episode was a model of reasonable investigation, with most investigators concluding that there was sufficient grounds for law enforcement to get involved and use the invasive investigatory tools that only law enforcement has access to to get at the truth. Maybe Trump’s FBI will take a look. There have been many highly placed child sex rings and Podesta’s emails are beyond weird.

    Was the FBI sheet on the symbology employed by pedophiles, released as an addition to the Wikileaks dump, real or fake? Because the symbols on that sheet were used by the people Podesta was talking to. If the leak was via an insider there is a strong case to be made that he was motivated by the evidence contained in the emails of Podesta being involved in a pedophile ring.

    This is stuff for law enforcement to investigate. Did wikileaks post actual FBI guidance on symbols used by pedophiles? If so the evidence amassed by the Pizzagate researchers ought to garner strong law enforcement interest.

    Stanford should have to state what was fake in the evidence amassed before they go calling evidence (evidence!) “fake news.”

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