Josh Marshall, who is generally one of the better political commentators out there, recently wrote a piece called Why You’re Fooling Yourself About Fake News. The point of the piece is that liberals who believe that fake news sways elections are wrong. Fake news, says Marshall, is a demand-driven phenomena: the people reading and believing fake news are reading it as an expression of beliefs that are already set. This has been common wisdom for a while, and during the flurry of calls from reporters I got after the election it was probably the top question I was asked — Sure, people saw that Hillary may have killed an FBI agent — but given how extreme you’d have be to believe that, how could it sway any votes?
So caveats first. A lot of what we repost falls into what I’ve called “Identity Headlines“. I repost something on the homelessness problem in Silicon Valley partially to raise awareness, but largely to show that I’m the sort of person who cares about the homeless and hates Silicon Valley dicks. I don’t even need to read the article to achieve this effect, and if I’m like most people on most days, I probably don’t.
Fake news is similar, and in this way is demand -driven. A lot of people really, really, really hated Hillary Clinton, but after multiple hacks and leaks and congressional investigations the actual world was still not producing headlines that adequately expressed the level of hatred and suspicion many people felt. So the market stepped in and created some fake ones. Headline-as-bumper-sticker problem solved!
Now, that headline above gets much closer to how a lot of people felt about Clinton than all of the stuff about how she may have said that some Bernie supporters were living at home with their parents or that people were deplorable. So people share and repost it, and it’s doubtful that the people who did that, at least initially, changed their vote. As Josh says, they were in the market for this from the start.
But I can’t stress this enough: this is only one half of the equation, and I remain confused that smart people can’t see that.
Fake News Headlines Had an Impact on Beliefs of Non-Posting Readers
The first problem with the “fake news only solidified partisanship” is what data we have about readers (not re-posters) tends to contradict that. Actually, “contradicts” is an understatement.
Now caveats on the analysis I’m about to show. Surveys on “Did you hear about X?” have some issues. Some people, put on the spot about what they know, want to appear knowledgeable, and a lot of people on opinion polls want to express a sort of personal orientation to the world more than a specific reaction to poll questions. There’s a survey on conspiracy theories, for example, where the pollsters asked about a fictional conspiracy — the North Dakota Crash — only to find that 32% endorsed it. By fictional conspiracy, by the way, I don’t mean just “conspiracy that is not true” but “conspiracy the pollster invented that has never been talked about before.” In a similar vein, we’ve never quite been able to tease out how many Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim and how many of them have been using that question as a proxy for how they feel about Obama.
But caveats aside, the one poll I’ve seen that’s actually asked folks what stories they saw and if they believed them is this one from Buzzfeed. And even when mentally accounting for some general-issue polll weirdness the results are still surprising.
The first finding was that a large percentage of people had seen fake headlines — as large as any real story. And the exposure was far less polarized than one would think. For example, for the infamous FBI Murder-Suicide headline, 22% of respondents had seen it, but about 40% of those who had seen it were Clinton voters.
Now we know that the Clinton voters who saw such anti-Clinton and pro-Trump fake stories are going to be much more likely to reject those stories as false. But how much more likely? Keep in mind these stories intimate that Clinton had an FBI agent killed and that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump. They are not subtle.
What we find surprised even me. Among Clinton voters that remembered a fake headline, the majority believed it in almost all instances.
That FBI agent story, for example? Over 50% of Clinton voters who remembered it believed it. Over 60% of Clinton voters who remembered the story about Trump protesters being paid believed that as well.
Is it a perfect way to assess this? No — I have some issues with the methodology of the poll. I think a different approach would shave some points off here. But even if you cut these effect in half, they are still completely inconsistent with the idea that fake headlines don’t influence belief, or that partisan leanings innoculate people against them.
Don’t like the study? Do another one (seriously, do it — we need a better one). But at the moment it’s the best evidence we have as to what went on, and it supports the idea that headlines matter.
If a bunch of Democrats went to the polls to vote for Hillary despite the fact she may have murdered an FBI agent, is it hard to believe that at least some Democrats didn’t stay home out of disgust? In fact, isn’t it probable?
How many? We don’t know. But we do know that it would only take about a football stadium’s worth of voters across three states to sway the election. This poll suggests that millions of Clinton voters went to the polls believing damaging stories about Clinton that were completely false. Millions. It really does not seem a stretch to think this had an impact.
What do these voters look like? I’ve met them, personally. Folks — Democrats, even — that believe that maybe Seth Rich, a DNC worker who died in a street robbery last summer, might have been killed because he knew too much about the DNC leaks, or was going to leak additional material. When pressed, they retreat into “well, I didn’t say definitely, but something is weird there.”
Um, no. Nothing is weird there at all. What’s weird is seriously considering this possibility.
The Weird Nihilism of the Fake News Didn’t Matter Argument
So we get then to the second point: maybe people did believe these stories, but they didn’t have an effect. Clinton voters thought — oh, the FBI agent died suspiciously, but that doesn’t prove anything. And there’s a 5% chance that Clinton may have killed a 20-something computer-voting specialist at the DNC, but that’s OK, because I like her policies.
Taken to it’s logical conclusion this amounts to a sort of nihilism, because it implies that “real news” doesn’t matter either.
Josh believes, for example, that the Comey letters did serious damage to Clinton, and may have lost her the election (for what it’s worth, I agree). But if we believe that people are innoculated against headlines by partisan belief, how is that possible? Under the pure “Identity Headlines” analysis no one’s opinions should have changed — pro-Clinton folks would read the Comey letter headlines and think “Well, more interference” and pro-Trump folks would read the headlines and say “Yep, Crooked Hillary” and the needle wouldn’t move.
But of course that’s not what happened. And I’ll quote Josh here:
Just to put my cards on the table, I believe there is a good likelihood, probably even a probability, that if the Russian subversion campaign had never happened and James Comey had never released his letter, Hillary Clinton would be prepping to become our new President. My own guess is that Comey’s letter had the bigger impact. These were both profoundly damaging events in the race and Clinton lost by very tight margins in most of the newly (hopefully temporarily) red states. I see little way to challenge this assertion.
So the Comey headlines hurt, but the fake headlines did not? How is this a tenable position?
Not to belabor the point, but imagine a world where Comey did not release a letter about the Weiner emails, but a large percentage of voters believed he had, due to fake headlines. Why would we expect that the real news would have a different impact than fake news? To a gullible reader, the fake event and the real event have equal impact.We don’t live in a world where we experience fake news differently from real news — to the reader they are equally mediated events, and indistinguishable from one another.
There’s a good argument to be made that events, and campaigns, and news, and scandals don’t matter for the vast majority of voters. They probably don’t. But to say that fake news can’t swing an election you have to move from an argument that people are resistant to news to one that they are impervious to it. And this is in fact to say that nothing in a campaign matters — not positions, not actions, not scandals, not ill-considered comments. Not the campaign itself, or the coverage it generates. That just doesn’t make sense.