As it turns out, a majority of the American public is not bad at identifying disinformation. But as the 2020 election nears, the online disinformation problem isn’t even close to being resolved.
Democracy cannot exist without informed voters. Without at least some basic-level correct information about political candidates, their track record, and their proposed policies, a democratic system loses its meaning, and the election mechanism morphs into a lottery.
In the past two centuries, voters gathered most of their political information from the news media—newspapers, radio, TV, and, in the last two decades, the internet. Flawed and partisan as they may have been, traditional news outlets helped voters form opinions on candidates according to their preferences, thus positively influencing the political process.
But what happens when a large part of the news is demonstrably false—or, as we now say, fake news? How can voters make even partially-informed decisions if they don’t know what is accurate and true? These questions became particularly pertinent before and after the 2016 US presidential elections and Donald Trump’s surprise victory, when data emerged that many voters were massively exposed to misinformation and aggressive political ads on social media platforms, especially on Facebook.
Those concerns have become even more prominent as of late. Just this week, Facebook refused to take down a false ad by Donald Trump’s reelection campaign that promotes conspiracy theories about Joe Biden’s alleged corruption in Ukraine. As the 2020 election nears, the question remains: will social media platforms further undermine the democratic process?
While there is no consensus yet on the extent to which social media influenced the 2016 election, an increasing number of people are convinced that the disruption to the democratic process was and is real, as evidenced by legislators’ inquiries, popular and media demand for regulations, and tech platforms’ efforts to curb fake news and increase the transparency of political ads. Politicians and pundits often urge the public to display critical judgment when exposed to news content online. Facebook and other platforms even published detailed instructions to their users for identifying misinformation and false news.
Were these efforts effective? With the 2020 election only a year away, has the fake news problem been addressed and curtailed, or did it get worse? A recent study by Andrew Guess, Benjamin Lyons, Jacob M. Montgomery, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler compared the American public’s exposure to fake news and political ads on Facebook in 2016 and during the run-up to the 2018 US midterms. Their research relies on data from a YouGov survey conducted in two waves between October and November 2018, as well as an extension for Chrome and Firefox that allowed the authors to capture what participants were seeing on Facebook. What they find is both good news and bad news for democracy.
First, the good news: Exposure to fake news was lower during the 2018 midterms than it was in 2016. The exposure to political ads on Facebook has also decreased and is now small in absolute terms. As it turns out, a majority of the American public is not bad at identifying fake news.
These positive findings, however, don’t mean that the misinformation problem is even remotely close to being resolved.
First, as the research shows, significant segments of the American electorate, mostly hardcore partisans on the right and the left, still consume large quantities of fake news and are still exposed to political ads highly targeted towards them. These groups are large enough to easily influence and sway any close election, which the upcoming presidential election may very well be.
Second, it’s probable that the decrease in exposure to fake news and political Facebook ads is temporary and will pick up again before the next election. We already have evidence that the use of digital misinformation tactics around the world is growing, and the incentive to influence political outcomes through false online content is only likely to grow. Political operators and malicious actors may well launch new fake news sites and channels, spend more money on political ads, and develop new tactics to make fake news stories seem more reliable (and thus become more viral) as the 2020 election nears.
Third, the internet itself might not be the main source of fake news and political ads. As Lyons et al. write in the discussion part of their paper, voters are also exposed to fake news through TV, radio, and newspapers. President Trump, for example, is a prodigious producer of fake news, his false Biden-Ukraine ads just the latest in a seemingly endless series of falsehoods: According to the Washington Post fact-checker, Trump produced 1,434 false claims during the fall of 2018 alone. Thus, while only 1 in 10 Americans was exposed to fake news websites during this same period, many more were exposed to some of Trump’s false claims through TV news and talk shows, as well as through newspapers (even if the outlet in question expressed doubt regarding the claims’ accuracy).
Finally, and most importantly, the reported decrease in exposure to fake news and political ads on Facebook between 2016 and 2018 should not be an excuse to end or soften the pressure. Beyond the dissemination of fake news, there are other and more important ways in which Facebook is damaging the media system and changing how voters gather information about political candidates.
As detailed in the Stigler Center report on the power and influence of digital platforms, Facebook is pulling the rug out from under the media in several ways. For one, it is destroying the news media’s business model by monopolizing advertising budgets. Facebook also influences editorial choices because media outlets have to use Facebook for distributing their content, which is then diluted with millions of unchecked blogs, comments, and opinions. Marginal fake news sites and political ads on Facebook are not the democracy-threatening monsters that some took them to be. Instead, the spread of misinformation by mainstream politicians, as well as the damage that Facebook inflicts upon the news-producing professional media, is the clear and present danger to society.
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