Fake news as a political influence is not a recent development, but partisan differences strengthening in United States democracy paired with increasing distribution through online media outlets has brought symptoms and solutions to a national debate. The April 2018 Economist article “Fake news flourishes when partisan audiences crave it” explores the interactions between news sources and their audiences, the paradoxical effect of fact-checking, and the influence of “group learning” on election day results.
This Economist article draws on two important studies. The first was entitled, “Do Newspapers Serve the State? Incumbent Party Influence on the US Press, 1869-1928,” conducted by Gentzkow (Stanford University) and Shapiro (Brown University), and looked at political slants of local newspapers. The second was conducted by Nyhan (Dartmouth College) and Reifler (University of Exeter), entitled “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” and looked at whether fact-checking truly influences those who are already solidified in their own beliefs. The premises of this article and its supporting studies are a good foundation for analyzing the effects of partisanship on fake news, but fail to discuss the reasoning behind such voter behavior beyond the assumption that voters are motivated by confirmation bias and news outlets are motivated to please their audiences to generate higher viewership (and hence, advertising dollars). This response seeks to take this analysis a step further by looking at the motivators that political audiences are influenced by that result in such a toxic media environment.
As discussed in the Economist article, group learning is a major factor in the spread of fake news. The more time people spend with others who have similar political outlooks and worldviews, the more extreme each of their outlooks will become, as is evident from politically centered Facebook groups to more diffused partisanship through regional politics. In Miller and Conover’s 2015 article, “ Red and Blue States of Mind: Partisan Hostility and Voting in the United States,” the implications of group learning are approached through the lenses of Social Comparison and Social Identity Theory. These theories describe how people are susceptible to finding their identities through group identification, such as a football team or political party. The authors use a sports metaphor to describe how partisanship can become harmful; the behavior of both liberals and conservatives in the US echoes that of sports fans/players seeking to protect the status of their “teams.” This is far from the actions of an ideal voter that would look at the facts and consider opinions based on a thoughtful analysis of evidence and promotes the act of refuting evidence for the purpose of defending a team member, even if they may be in the wrong.
Conflicts begin to arise when the “teams” are presented with a piece of information that one of them may find to be untrue. For example, if President Trump were to make a false claim about immigration and a democrat were to “fact check” it through a remark or online comment, an argument would likely ensue with both sides trying to prove each other wrong (or sometimes just redirect the argument). The problem is, both parties will become more frustrated with one another and as a result will simply become further solidified in their beliefs. This principle was touched on in the Economist article through the Nyhan and Exeter Study and is also exploited by Oscar Barrera in his 2018 article, “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics.” Barrera reports that fact checking just increases the salience of political candidates rather than changing voting behavior. This suggests that American voters are more emotionally charged than they are rational and a campaign’s greatest shot at success is creating a narrative that appeals to its desired audience emotions rather than use evidence and reason based arguments to shimmy their way into office on technicalities.
The potential implications of this thought process are unsettling due to the amount of power it places in the hands of political candidates. By opting for emotionally-targeting campaigns rather than less partisan and volatile ones, political opponents are endorsing their teams to escalate from card games to bar fights to driving through a crowd in Charlottesville. Through this lens, the danger in fake news lies in the heightening anger brought in by increasingly partisan elections and voters due to the feedback loop that is created. Voters see something outrageous, get into online arguments about it, and leave the argument more strong willed and politically motivated than before. Each party then wants to hear their candidates match their beliefs with equally if not further radical ideas; the candidates give in to feed their audience without looking at objective evidence, and the cycle continues.
Additionally, becoming further informed on issues rather than relying on confirmation bias is expensive in terms of time and effort. The American population is busy and overworked, and the truth is being an informed voter is likely not at the top of anyone’s to-do list. All of the articles discussed in this response have made it very clear that friendly bystander fact-checking imposed by social media companies isn’t going to cut it, and even removing opportunities to twist information provided by newscasters can only go so far. If the American public really wants to recover from its fake news epidemic, they need to turn to the politicians at the center of the partisanship and demand they respect the facts, for the integrity of American democracy may be at stake.
Photo by Markus Winkler, “Fake News” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.”