The readings from this past week are quite clear: the media, specifically “fake news” and the dissemination of “alternative facts,” has proved to be a very strong tool for populist leaders to gain support. As early as Adolf Hitler (Adena et al.) and as recently as the 2017 elections in France (Barrera et al.) they have proved a dangerous influence on voter choice. However, the literature we have read for class, namely the Gunther and Barrera articles, deals with alternative facts mostly as it pertains to news media, such as television. While this is a reasonable focus for these particular articles, future analysis on the release of alternative facts into voters’ information stream will likely require a stronger look into “alternative means” of alternative facts, namely the cascade of information we get from social media.
It is necessary to clarify this is not a result of a failure in the literature, but rather a sign of the times. The authors of “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact-Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics” make a strong case for why they mainly talk about television media: in the sample for the French elections, 61% of respondents’ main source of information was television, while 22% preferred to get their information from the Internet (Barrera et al. 15). The internet is merely two and a half decades old, and social media is still a relatively recent phenomenon, so we expect younger generations to primarily get their information through the internet as opposed to television media. The article makes no such distinction in its analysis, likely because there was either not a significant enough generational effect to account for it or the authors were more interested in respondents’ fact-checking ability, as opposed to a particular source of information.
Still, a case can be made that television, the most significant primary source of information in the aforementioned article, may also age out and be replaced by social media. For a case as to why, 10% of respondents to the survey listed radio as their primary source of information. In all likelihood, this was a much older age group in the survey who gave this response, although I suppose a case could be made that people who drive a lot regardless of age will use radio. But it’s worth pointing out: radio was a powerful tool for populists pre-television. It is the star power in the article “Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany”: the Nazis broadcast their anti-Semitic rhetoric to the German population, which in turn led to significant gains in the election. Radio, already a new technology, increased in use over the course of the Nazis’ rise, not coincidentally exposing a much larger audience to their message (Adena 1888). Radio was an equally powerful tool for populist rhetoric in the United States, lest we forget FDR’s “Fireside Chats” during the Depression. This is a far cry from radio’s role in recent elections, and in fact most of the younger generation does not even own a radio beyond what they may have pre-installed in their car (I say this as a radio DJ, by the way).
The point I am trying to make is that with changing times voters’ primary sources of information also change, and that a voter base that primarily relies on television as information for one election may eventually morph into a voter base that relies on the various articles and memes that appear on their social media stream. The effect of dissemination of “alternative facts” and “fake news” for populist leaders on social media is something that warrants further analysis as the internet gains more widespread use, even if the internet may not currently be the primary source of information. Gunther et al. touches on this with analysis on the various fake news articles spread by Russian bots during the 2016 election and the variance they may have had on voter choice. The writers acknowledge that a single survey is not enough to strongly support causality but encourage further analysis. I find this warrants further attention must be paid to the role social media plays in voter choice as social media becomes our primary information source.