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Fake news: what it is, and how it can influence politics

Fake news, otherwise known as stories based on false information, have the potential to influence politics, researchers say. (Image credit: Getty images)

Does fake news, also known as stories based on false information, influence voters? 

Although its effect may be small, one study concluded fake news did influence the outcome of the very close 2016 presidential election. 

The Ohio State University study suggests that about 4% of President Barack Obama’s 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by belief in stories based on false information.

According to Facebook in prepared Senate testimony, 126 million Americans were shown Russian-backed, politically-oriented false stories via the social media platform during the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

Not every Facebook user exposed to the fake news articles read the stories of course. But if only a fraction did and were influenced by them, it could have changed the outcome of a very close race, as the study above suggests.

Fake news outdraws real

Also, leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the 20 most popular false stories got more shares, reactions and comments (8.7 million engagements) than the most popular 20 real news stories (7.3 million engagements), according to NPR.

Social media drives more users to fake news sites than real ones.  More than 40% of visits to 65 fake news sites come from social media when compared to about 10% of visits to 690 top US news sites, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

More than one-quarter of voting-age adults visited a fake news website supporting either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, according to research by Princeton’s Andrew Guess, Dartmouth University’s Brendan Nyhan and the University of Exeter’s Jason Reifler. 

“There is a vast menagerie of misinformation. It’s particularly insidious because it undermines the legitimacy of the mainstream news,” said David Lazer, who studies the internet’s influence on citizens and their elected officials.

“[Social media] amplifies what would really be a fringe message, and makes it mainstream when it’s not,” said David Broniatowski, whose research examines how people make decisions that involve risk.

Different audiences see stories differently

Conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe things that aren’t true when the possible consequences are negative or suggest possible danger, according to research conducted by a team from UCLA in 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The study also found conservatives were more likely than moderates or liberals to share fake news articles.

However, age plays a role as well. Researchers found that fewer than 10% of Americans shared a story from a fake news domain, and those who did were more likely to be older than 65. Senior citizens shared phony articles on Facebook at a rate seven times higher than that of young adults between 18 and 29, according to a study published in January 2019 in the journal Science Advances.

According to an academic study cited in The Conversation:

Though our evidence does not “prove” that belief in fake news “caused” these former Obama voters to defect from the Democratic candidate in 2016, our study results suggest that it is highly likely that the pernicious pollution of our political discourse by fake news was sufficient to influence the outcome of what was a very close election.