In 2018, social scientists Oscar Barrera, Sergei Guriev, Emeric Henry, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya conducted an experiment where subjects were shown inaccurate statements made by a political leader and additional information that either reinforced or debunked the statement. They found that this fact-checking often did not affect the support for the candidate that made the statement, concluding that ‘alternative facts’ were merely too alluring.
There is an issue here in the study’s framework. By posing the statements as coming from the mouth of a politician, it is in fact easier to draw a direct connection between what a candidate has said and whether people support them. However, many ‘alternative facts’ do not originate in the minds of leaders, but are instead used by leaders to win the support of an electorate that has already decided on the facts that they agree upon.
With the advent of the internet, news is no longer relegated to experts or controlled sources, where a politician could very well start a rumor fueled by the power of their position. However, the majority of people no longer get their news from television or the newspaper; and even those who use social media are often not turning to official news organizations for coverage, but instead to their peers.
Take, for example, the ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy theory that ran rampant online that alleged that food-related keywords in Hillary Clinton’s emails were code for an underground child sex ring run out of the basement of a pizza parlor. The theory circled through the underbelly of the internet, until it was disseminated throughout mainstream social media, covered by radio host Alex Jones, and finally exploded when an armed gunman broke into the pizza parlor in the name of liberation only to find that, not only were there no nefarious ongoings in the building’s basement, but that the building did not have a basement at all. By then, politicians had caught on to the issue. The day after the attack, Michael Flynn Jr.– son of Donald Trump’s then-national security advisor– tweeted in support of the conspiracy.
Fake news is not started at the level of the politician. Rather, the false statements made by politicians are the blooms of a toxic flower that has been putting out roots for a long time. Combating fake news and the impact that it can have on elections is not so simple as fact-checking politicians, but rather an effort that requires deep disruption of our current news cycle and our methods of information distribution.