Anyone with a Facebook account this year likely witnessed a barrage of false, conspiracy-laden headlines. My news feed informed me that Hillary Clinton was gravely ill, was already dead, had a body double, and murdered dozens of people. (It's amazing what you can learn when you have the right friends.) I also found out that President Barack Obama had worked his way through college as a gay prostitute. (Who could blame him? Columbia is very expensive!)
Reeling after November's unexpected loss to Donald Trump, Democrats have taken to blaming such "fake news" for that outcome. Trump won, the argument goes, because Americans were exposed to inaccurate information; if only they'd had the right info from the right people, voters would have made better choices. A Washington Post piece took the idea further, claiming that fake news stems from a "sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy." In response to such heated calls, Facebook has started looking for ways to rid itself of the fakeries.
Whether or not it's to blame for Trump's victory, fake news can be a problem. People who absorb inaccuracies will sometimes believe them and, worse, act on them. And once an inaccuracy gets lodged in a person's head, it can be difficult to dislodge. The political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have shown that even when presented with authoritative facts, people will not merely refuse to change their incorrect beliefs; in some instances they'll double down on them. This is called the "backfire" effect.
But it is far from clear that fake news has the sweeping effects that its critics charge. People have always put stock in dubious ideas, and the latest deluge of suspect headlines traversing the Internet smells more of continuity than it does of change.
I have been studying political communication for more than a decade. Much of that time has been spent looking at conspiracy theories, why people believe them, and how they spread. What we know about how people interact with information—and misinformation—suggests that fake political news doesn't affect people's opinions nearly as much as is being insinuated.
Where Political Beliefs Come From
In the 1940s, the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld and his colleagues explored how the media affects political views by comparing people's opinions (as measured by surveys) to the news and advertisements they were exposed to. The investigators expected to find evidence that media messages had immediate, powerful, and intuitive effects on people's political views. Instead, they found that opinions were largely stable and invariant to media messages. You could face a barrage of the Madison Avenue pitches proclaiming the virtues of either President Franklin Roosevelt or his Republican challenger, but if six months in advance you were inclined to vote for one of those men, in November that was who you'd probably vote for. Very few people changed their preferences over the course of the campaign.
The same finding held throughout the broadcast era: There was very little relationship between people's intended choices and the messaging they encountered. Whatever change did occur usually took the form of people aligning their candidate preferences with their underlying party affiliation. External events and economic conditions mattered, of course, but they tended to make their impact regardless of messaging. This is not to say that news, advertisements, and campaigns have no effects. But those effects tend to be less direct and of lower magnitude than people assume.
Over the last few decades, as media markets segmented, the ratings for the three traditional broadcast news programs have declined and people have sought out other entertainment options. For those who enjoy and seek out political news, market segmentation allowed them to gravitate toward messages that gratified their beliefs. Republicans tuned in to Fox News; Democrats preferred MSNBC. People tended to avoid news they disagreed with—and when they nonetheless did encounter a message that they rejected a priori, they found ways to discount it or to interpret it in a manner that made it congruent with their pre-existing opinions. Political scientists Katherine Einstein and David Glick recently published the results of an experiment showing that Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to believe the Bureau of Labor Statistics' unemployment numbers were faked or misleading. The experiment took place during the Obama administration, so it was no surprise that Democrats resisted the idea that the numbers were false while Republicans could not accept that unemployment was going down. People hear what they want to hear.
This is consistent with broader findings on partisanship. The first major statement of these data was The American Voter, a 1960 book by a team of scholars at the University of Michigan. During their formative years, the authors concluded, people are socialized into their ideologies and partisan loyalties by their parents, family, schools, friends, religion, media, and many other sources. Their views may evolve as they mature, but by the time a person hits her 30s, her political identity has usually solidified. Candidates, elections, and issues will come and go, but people's political identities will probably not change.
These underlying attitudes determine how people vote. Thus, despite the remarkably low favorability numbers that both major-party candidates enjoyed in 2016, about 90 percent of Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton and about 90 percent of Republicans voted for Donald Trump. There were few defectors.
Partisanship and ideology color how people interpret information. Democrats look at the current unemployment rate of 4.9 percent and conclude that Barack Obama has done a great job on the economy. Republicans see that same number and conclude it is either improperly calculated or, worse, a hoax. Same information, different interpretations.
Perhaps my favorite example of this occurred when Herman Cain ran for the Republican presidential nomination. His successful tenure as CEO of Godfather's Pizza was a primary talking point on the campaign trail. Coincidentally, YouGov's BrandIndex already happened to be surveying the public about the restaurant's brand favorability. When Cain's campaign began, Republicans and Democrats viewed the pizza chain similarly, but as the country learned about Cain, opinions of Godfather's polarized: Democrats began to view the chain more negatively while Republicans did the opposite. By the height of Cain's popularity in late 2011, Republicans and Democrats differed by 25 points (on a scale ranging from -100 to 100) in their view of the company. It was the same pizza, but suddenly people's political loyalties played a major role in determining how much they liked it.
What does this mean for fake news? When my father-in-law read on Facebook that Barack Obama once worked as a gay prostitute, it did not change his view of the president. He was already convinced that Obama had a shrouded past and that the president did not share his values. The prostitution story reinforced my father-in-law's views, but it did not create them. Fake political news tends to preach to the choir.
Has the Internet Really Made the Problem Worse?
Aha, you might object, but the internet has changed all that. The old gatekeepers have been wiped away, and we are flooded like never before by misinformation, disinformation, and dubious claims of all kinds. Surely that poses an unprecedented threat. As the New York Daily News breathlessly declared a few years ago, "It's official: America is becoming a conspiratocracy. The tendency for a small slice of the population to believe in devious plots has always been with us. But conspiracies have never spread this swiftly across the country. They have never lodged this deeply in the American psyche. And they have never found as receptive an audience."
My research into conspiracy theories suggests we should be suspicious of such claims. "Fake news" and "conspiracy theories" are not precisely the same thing—not all fake news stories involve conspiracies, and for that matter not all conspiracy claims are fake—but they overlap enough that what we've learned about one can inform how we react to the other. Much fake news is sold and consumed on the premise that mainstream outlets cover up important information that is only available through alternative sources.
Contrary to many people's expectations, the internet does not appear to have made conspiracy thinking more common. In a study of letters to the editor of The New York Times, my coauthor Joseph Parent and I found that over time, conspiracy theorizing has in fact declined. There have been spikes in the past—in the 1890s, when fear was focused on corporate trusts, and in the 1950s, during the Red Scare—but there does not seem to be such a surge now. Yes, thanks to Trump (and to some extent Bernie Sanders) our political and media elites are discussing conspiracy theories much more frequently. But that doesn't mean people are believing them more than they did in, say, 2012. If anything, Trump's conspiracy theories follow trends that already existed: His conspiracy theories about foreigners and foreign governments play to fears that people already had. (Our data show that Americans have always possessed a fondness for scapegoating foreigners.)
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