January 18, 2017

“Fake news” stories favoring Donald Trump far exceeded those favoring Hillary Clinton but did not have a significant impact on the presidential election, concludes a new survey of social and other media consumption.

The study, which also downplays the political impact of social media in general, is co-authored by economists Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University and Hunt Allcott of New York University. It will be released Wednesday afternoon on their websites and Monday as a working paper on the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research’s website.

Their paper, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” melds new web browsing data, a 1,200-person post-election online survey they conduct and the assembling of a database of election stories categorized as fake by prominent fact-checking websites, including PolitFact, in the three months leading to the election.

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In sum, they conclude that the role of social media was overstated, with television remaining by far the primary vehicle for consuming political news. Just 14 percent of Americans deemed social media the primary source of their campaign news, according to their research.

In addition, while fake news that favored Trump far exceeded that favoring Clinton, few Americans actually recalled the specifics of the stories and fewer believed them.

“For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single
fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads,” they conclude.

The paper is worth consideration especially given overriding press assumptions about the potency of ideologically driven news coverage. It could strike some as offering cautionary notes about seeing the Trump-Clinton campaign through that lens and, to an extent, follows up on a 2011 research paper, “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline,” by Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro, who were both then at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. (The New York Times-Chicago News Cooperative) Shapiro is now at Brown University.

Gentzkow is a rising star in his field who won the 2014 John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the top economist under the age of 40. His 2011 research with Shapiro
assessed data on both online and non-Internet news consumption and face-to-face social interactions, and concluded that there is far less ideologically driven news consumption than most assume.

Conventional media analysis was wrong, they found, as they challenged a widely held view put forth by (among others) Cass Sunstein, a prominent legal scholar and former university colleague of theirs in Chicago who ran the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs early in the Obama Administration and is now back at Harvard Law School.

In his 2001 book, “Republic.com” Sunstein argued that the country is moving toward a society where “people restrict themselves to their own points of view — liberals watching and reading mostly or only liberals; moderates, moderates; conservatives, conservatives; neo-Nazis, neo-Nazis.”

In part, Gentzkow and Shapiro countered that view by showing that most people do not get their news from ideologically driven sources, with more traditional neutral wire service and local TV fare outweighing the much chronicled cable news channels, notably Fox News, and politically skewed websites.

The Gentzkow-Allcott work defines fake news as those stories “that have no factual basis but are presented as facts” and excludes false statements originated by political candidates and websites know for satire, such as the Onion. It explains at length how it came to what it deemed an objective measure of “no factual basis” and how it arrived at its ultimate calculations after assembling its database of fake news articles.

To that extent, they draw on work by PolitiFact, BuzzFeed editor Craig Silverman and Snopes, among others, and then questioned 1,208 adults aged 18 and over after the election using the SurveyMonkey platform. How much did those fake stories impact them? What was the source of their knowledge about the election?

Their results “suggest that social media has become an important but not dominant
source of political news and information. Television remains more important by a large margin.”

For sure, they concede that rumors and wacky conspiracy theories are not new to our era of social media. They have a rich history. Divergent conclusions on factual issues goes back a long time. It offers one example that came up during the campaign but originated in 1995 during the presidency of Bill Clinton: the conspiracy theories that Clinton aide Vince Foster was murdered, despite that the fact that five separate investigations underscored that it was a suicide.

Much of the paper delves deeply into their mathematical assumptions and modus operandi, citing the work of many others, and may send the heads of laymen spinning.

To cut to the chase:

“In summary, our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans. 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 might now be the logical follow-up?

“The fake news paper does not have a lot of new facts on the extent of ideological segregation,” Gentzkow said via email Wednesday. “Updating those 2016 facts for the age of social media is one of the next things on the agenda.”

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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