It Probably Wasn’t Fake News

I just read an article about the 2016 election that argued two things: First, fake news probably had very little effect on election outcomes. And second, the media actually did.

I liked the first part, because it confirmed what I already thought was true (see this short cartoon on confirmation bias for a little chuckle). Fake news only make a tiny fraction of all the news and I don’t think they are particularly effective. It is just genuinely hard to persuade people through advertising (see e.g. Why Targeted Advertising Fails so Miserably or Online Advertising is a Giant Bubble).

For example, a New York Times story reported that Facebook identified more than 3,000 ads purchased by fake accounts traced to Russian sources, which generated over $100,000 in advertising revenue. But Facebook’s advertising revenue in the fourth quarter of 2016 was $8.8 billion, or $96 million per day. All together, the fake ads accounted for roughly 0.1 percent of Facebook’s daily advertising revenue. The 2016 BuzzFeed report that received so much attention claimed that the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook “generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments” between August 1 and Election Day. […] If each user took only a single action per day on average (likely an underestimate), then throughout those 100 days prior to the election, the 20 stories in BuzzFeed’s study would have accounted for only 0.006 percent of user actions.

I liked the second part, because it came to some surprise to me. I would have thought that US newspapers probably failed at explaining the two candidate’s policies enough. It is just so easy to gather clicks by talking about scandals instead of actual policy proposals. I would not have thought, however, that Hillary Clinton was portrayed as equally scandal-ridden as Donald Trump. From a European perspective, the e-mails didn’t look great. But it was always made very clear that it was Trump who was the scandalous one and Clinton who was the maybe not perfect, but very reasonable candidate. Until now I was painfully unaware that this was probably not the picture portrayed by the media before the US election. If both Seeing that both candidates were depicted as equally plagued by scandals to me goes some way explaining why the election turned out the way it did.

Consistent with other studies of media coverage of the election, our analysis finds that The New York Times focused much more on “dramatic” issues like the horserace or personal scandals than on substantive policy issues. Moreover, when the paper did write about policy issues, it failed to mention important details, in some cases giving readers a misleading impression of the true state of affairs. If voters had wanted to educate themselves on issues such as healthcare, immigration, taxes, and economic policy—or how these issues would likely be affected by the election of either candidate as president—they would not have learned much from reading the Times. What they would have learned was that both candidates were plagued by scandal: Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server for government business while secretary of state, as well as allegations of possible conflicts of interest in the Clinton Foundation; and Trump over his failure to release his tax returns; his past business dealings; Trump University; the Trump Foundation; accusations of sexual harassment and assault; and numerous misogynistic, racist, and otherwise offensive remarks.

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